Is snobbery against the trades endangering our economy?

by RNZ / 22 July, 2019
Construction site. Photo: 123rf.com

A construction site. Photo: 123rf.com.

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The prejudice that encourages kids to go to university at the expense of a career in the trades is harming our economy.

Encouraging your kids to go to university at the expense of a career in the trades has been described as one of the last bastions of elitism in New Zealand.

As the construction industry cries out for workers, that attitude is one it is desperately trying to change. But it’s fighting an uphill battle against parents who want a high-flying or prestigious career for their children; and teachers and school counsellors who put university first.

It’s hoped a report on restructuring tertiary education – which will contain the biggest reforms in that sector since 1990 – will go some way to addressing the issue. Recommendations from the RoVE report – Reform of Vocational Education – are due before Cabinet soon.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins wants to merge the country’s 16 polytechnics – many in various stages of failure – and bring in a central body to oversee them. He will also be looking at issues of equity in terms of qualifications gained between those doing university courses, and those getting trade qualifications.

For the chief executive of the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation, Warwick Quinn, that’s something that is long overdue. He says the prejudice against construction work is reinforced by our qualifications framework that ranks apprenticeships far lower than an academic pathway.

After three years of study at university you come out with a level 7 NCEA qualification. After a five year building apprenticeship, where you learn to read blueprints, run a business, get your head around the Resource Management Act and endless regulations, and are able to build a house – you come out with a level four.

“The qualifications framework ought to recognise the degree of complexity and study and cognitive thinking and all of the attributes that particular qualification has. And whether it’s a vocational qualification such as a trade-based one, or an academic pathway which is a university one, it should make no difference in the standard of education you obtain.

“Having a framework that tends to reinforce the view that a level four is not as good as a level seven just reinforces that long-held view that ‘well, university must be better – even the government thinks so – it ranks it higher’.”

Quinn also hopes the report, which will look at the way the system is funding, will address the issue of paying employers to train apprentices, just as the government pays other teachers to train tertiary learners.

He says if things carry on the way they are at the moment, it will be disastrous for the economy.

Building and Construction Apprenticeships (BCITO) is increasing its apprentice numbers by about 1,000 a year, or 10 percent. But that goes nowhere near filling the shortfall of workers required to build all the homes New Zealand needs.

“There’s about 80,000 workers needed in construction over the next five years – that’s all types of work in the sector. We think about half of those need to be trade qualified in some way or another. We’re likely to produce maybe 10 – 15,000 across that period. So we’re probably 10 – 12,000 tradespeople short on the current numbers.

“Unemployment is low. We are all competing for the same people – not just the trades, but across all the sectors. The service sector, the IT sectors, all wanting school leavers who are leaving in fewer numbers because of low birth rates 15 years ago.

“So we need to have a combination of things. Immigration is going to continue to be important. (We need to) diversify our industry – we are heavily dominated by males.

“New Zealand Inc has a period of about 10 years to address these issues before our birth rate really collapses, and the baby boomers who are currently working their way through the system disappear.”

BCITO is trying to reposition the industry in the minds of the influencers – parents and teachers – to persuade school leavers there are careers available in management, quantity surveying, project supervision and construction at a high level.

“There’s a whole diverse range of offerings,” he says.

“When you actually understand the prejudice that exists towards the trades it’s very blunt – I mean it’s quite confronting – something like 75 percent of people like teachers and influencers have formed a view that they’re against construction. They see it as a dead end; it doesn’t provide a great career progression; and therefore we’re battling a very long held view at that level.”

But Quinn points out those on the tools who earn as they learn, and go into an industry where there’s a shortage of skills, and have no student debt, are the ones who are putting their boats into the water on Saturday morning while they’re still in their 20s.

This article was first published on Radio NZ's The Detail.

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