What’s happening with our trades?

Part two of a two-part series in which MESNZ secretary Craig Carlyle shares his views on the supply of tradesmen and training of apprentices in New Zealand, based on the Society’s straw poll survey results.
Last month I looked at what Kiwi tradesmen are saying about this country’s training of apprentices, based on the results of the MESNZ straw poll survey.
We also had a set of questions aimed at the employers of tradesmen and apprentices, 80 percent of whom are currently in the employment hot seat and 72 percent with apprentice employment experience. This group surely must offer some insight into the supply and demand of trades staff?
Seventy one percent of respondents found the current apprenticeship system “terrible” or “not much better” than before and 90 percent believe that we are NOT creating better tradesmen than before. In a similar response to the trades group, 80 percent of employers rated block courses as an important function of the apprentice’s personal growth and maturing. In a major snub to current mantra, 80 percent of employers do NOT consider time away from the workplace on block courses as being a major factor when taking on an apprentice.
The cost of employing apprentices was an interesting driver, with close enough to a 50 percent split (52:48) between those who thought it is a major driver and those who don’t. However, in a major clue for government, a 70:30 ratio of employers stated that changes to the system or financial incentives would influence their decision to hire apprentices.
Not content with these easy answers, we asked employers to rate their principal drivers for employing apprentices. Surprise, surprise – the top 3 responses were; “Succession planning for the current workforce” and “Moral obligation to support industry and the trades”.
Middle of the heap was the conventional expected responses: “positive workshop culture”, “re-investment in the economy”, “part of total workshop profile”. Bottom of the heap was “cheap labour force”.
It is a no-brainer that if more apprentices were put through the system, more tradesmen would be available. With 85 percent of respondents telling us that it is difficult or extremely difficult to find capable indentured staff or contractors, you can read into this the risks of hiring overseas trained trades staff as well as any general lack of local supply. Damning commentary for the ‘brass-hats’ suggesting we can supplement our lack of trades staff with new immigrants.
The trainer’s view
Our survey would be incomplete without sticking our heads right in the lion’s mouth – the trainers themselves. The ITOs are in the hotbed of the debate with attention on the number and cost of providers. Our approach was double-sided: at the front door we listened to the official responses from these organisations, while the survey respondents gave us their unencumbered opinions from positions that suggested that they know intimately what they are talking about.
A whopping 71 percent rated our current apprenticeship system as “terrible” or “not much better” than that of the 1960s to 80s. Seventy percent claimed that new apprentices are fronting up to them worse prepared than before and 83 percent find that we are NOT creating better tradesmen than before. The old schooling system gave an opportunity to test your interest and ability in “woodwork” and “metalwork” before entering the real world. You had already learnt to remove the chuck key (remember the horror stories?) before you were wearing your first crisp overalls. Instead of learning those formative lessons, today’s school student’s technical experience seems to start with designing chocolate chip muffins!
Backing up the other groups, 93 percent rated block courses as vitally or highly important to the apprentice’s learning and personal development, with 83 percent assuring us that apprenticeships will not be adequately delivered without block courses.
Secondary education feedstock
Changes to the secondary education system and post secondary training have effectively killed the traditional feedstock of new apprentices. At school, the opportunity to try out trades skills and actually begin skills learning has been killed by new methods of delivering technical classes. I am unsure if this assists other careers, but it is undeniably not doing trades ANY favours. Our employers and trainers are clearly telling us this. Our modern social engineering agenda of turning technical institutes into universities and falling over ourselves to fund every student into professional study has created a trades disaster.
At the other end of the scale, those that can’t cope with the education system can enjoy all the benefits of adulthood without any of the responsibilities by going on “course”. Both outlets have effectively killed off our traditional trades feedstock; young people who could continue to grow, learn and excel by finding their niche in a trade.
Initiatives like John Kotoisuva’s Trades Academy (profiled in this issue of DEMM) is a bright star that deserves credit if we are to find ways of improving our lot. The pilot program demonstrates what can be achievedif our goal is to take our old 1960s system and truly improve its delivery and effectiveness.


Elephant in the room
Apprenticeships offer a different social and skill development than other tertiary training and we forget this lesson at our peril. If we wish to avoid becoming a third world nation we need a brave paradigm shift in how we structure our economy and best utilise our specific skills and advantages. Growing grass is good, but lifting the bar beyond that is a survival skill.
The results and reactions of the survey have been a journey and an education in itself for the MESNZ. Of paramount significance is the consistency and weight of the opinion about the issues and the wealth of simple, logical suggestions for improvement.
There IS a problem out there and there IS an elephant in the room.
Clearly there are issues emanating right from secondary school, how we inspire school leavers to enter the trades, the perception of apprenticeships compared with the new mantra of higher level qualifications and how we are tinkering with the training systems.
Of concern is the huge “disconnect” between those at the top of the totem pole and ‘Joe Average’. The gulf between what is discussed at high level as “representing industry” and our results are enormous. If government is listening to the right people, how can there be such a wide gap between the common man’s logic and the “official” version?
The difficulty in reaching out beyond the ‘yes men’ is understandable and engineers are as much a part of the solution as they are part of the problem; if you leave a vacuum someone else will fill it.
Get off your chuffs, participate through your organisations and representations and have your say.  People at governance level rely on your input if they are to get the correct read on the situation. From our study, 84 percent of employers and 58 percent of trainers have not been canvassed for their opinions in recent times. Kiwis are notoriously bad at having a grumble but not doing anything about it. How else could we have evolved an apprenticeship system from previous glory to the current version without a murmur?
The good news is that the government now recognises this, with the Ministry of Education announcing that it will review industry training in 2011. The terms of reference include engaging stakeholders (employers and industry groups). So here is your chance, individually or via your own organisation, have your say.
Positive suggestions from the
workshop floor
Summarising our study, we need to return (in effect) to the old technical class systems in our secondary education. We need to find methods of making trades a sexy and viable option again and capitalise on the demonstrated moral and social conscience of employers when it comes to linking industries with their local schools.
We need to understand that our 1992 and 2000 reforms of the apprenticeship system have not delivered and find a better way of effectively governing, mastering, training and qualifying apprentices than offering a honey pot of funding. Each function needs to be clearly separated and the delivery of contestable funding refined to remove duplication and inefficiency. Funding needs to be directed at upwardly driven programs that bridge between the public education system and industry.
Tinkering with training delivery needs to focus on creating better tradesmen, not cutting costs, hours or block courses. 
Simple and non-bureaucratic methods of incentivising employer participation need to be introduced that link business moral compasses to local communities. Providing tax breaks would appear a simple tool to me.
And finally, at government level, please Mr Key let us focus on inspirational and diversified long term strategies that grow New Zealand industry, not dumb us down.



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