The critical shortage of skilled tradespeople is not unique to New Zealand. It’s a worldwide problem, forcing governments and skills training organisations to try innovative new strategies to get more hands on the tools.

BCITO is the largest provider of construction trade apprenticeships in New Zealand, and CEO Warwick Quinn is clear about what needs to change to the plug the skilled tradies gap.

“We need a more flexible and adapted training regime that is more aligned to employer needs. The current regime is about 30 years old — construction is much more specialised now.

“Under the apprenticeship programme, the teacher is the employer and BCITO does the assessment. Every other teacher in New Zealand is paid to teach. As an employer, you’re not. When it’s price sensitive, you need help for that initial 12 to 18 months.”

 NZ vs UK

In Britain, there is an employer levy that goes into a central fund — everyone who trains can access that fund.  Similar schemes where employers are paid to teach have been adopted in many other countries.

“In New Zealand we have a building levy.  We’re saying why not redistribute this in a different way to supply support. The minister is looking at this,” says Quinn.

Only getting worse

One issue seldom mentioned in relation to the skilled labour shortage is the simple fact that the number of kids coming through kiwi schools and going out into the workforce is declining.

 “The record low birth rate in 2003 means the number of school leavers today has never been lower and this is adding pressure in an already-stretched sector,” says Quinn.

“We have a small window of 4-5 years to address some of our concerns before birth rates plummet to record lows. So, if you think we have a skills shortage now, just you wait.”

The Strength in Work scheme

One of the government’s new policies introduced last year – an apprenticeship for the dole scheme – applies to young people aged 18 to 24 years who have spent six or more months on a benefit.

Called Mana in Mahi (Strength in Work), the scheme subsidises an employer to the equivalent of the benefit, with the employer required to top it up to at least the minimum wage. The programme also includes funding for extra pastoral care up to $6000.

Grant Florence, who heads up NZ Certified Builders, the organisation that runs the ITAB apprenticeship scheme, says that while programmes like Mana Mahi are really valuable, “it still comes down to finding people with the right attitude who want to work, and that is especially hard at times like this where unemployment is at a record low.

“You can provide all the incentives in the world but if they don’t have that driven will, then it’s going to end up in failure.

“Government policy should be more targeted and give more support to young people to make sure they’re work ready. That’s where the focus needs to be.”

It’s been tried before

The building industry is made up of a lot of small companies ­– 90% have 9 employees or less ­– and around 60% of companies are one-man bands.

These companies don’t tend to take on apprentices. But for six months in 2013, under the Government’s ‘reboot’ scheme, things changed as subsidies were given to both employers and apprentices.

Aimed at improving numbers in the industry as the Christchurch re-build began, and to help cope with the Auckland housing crisis, the scheme was billed at the time by government as a great success.

But it wasn’t without issues

“With the Reboot scheme, there were quite a few instances of young people entering into an apprenticeship for the wrong reasons and vice versa – employers taking on apprentices for the wrong reasons,” says Florence.

“It was a shotgun approach; what we really need now is something more targeted.”

While the number of apprentices going through the system at present is very high, there are more employers looking for apprentices than the available supply, and the imbalance doesn’t look like changing in the immediate future.

So while paying (or subsidising) builders to encourage them to take on apprentices sounds great in theory, in the current environment, it seems a bit pointless.

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