This year’s top carpentry apprentice slogged through four years of university before he realised he was never going to get the job he wanted, where he wanted it. Chris McLean took up the tools instead and couldn’t be happier about his future in construction. Now he is trying to get school leavers to take a step back before applying for their student loan, asking them to spend 10 minutes on the Government’s job website researching their future. 

“If I had done that I would have saved a lot of time,” he said. Educated at a private school in Christchurch, he studied physical education at Otago with the aim of becoming a PE teacher. But when he graduated with his Bachelor of Physical Education – married by then, and wanting to stay in Dunedin – the job opportunities weren’t there. He postponed his teachers’ college year and signed on for a four-year carpentry apprenticeship with local company Just Build It Ltd. 

“I’d just followed the sheep and we bleated our way to university with not too much thought,” he said. “In my second year – with a few others – we started asking what we were doing there. Maybe it was my dream job but I didn’t look at it realistically in terms of was that job needed at the end?”  

The fact that a career in carpentry hadn’t crossed his mind, even to look at what was involved, is something that bothers the industry training body, BCITO. Not only was it not mentioned by school career advisors, McLean’s own father – an electrician – hadn’t brought it up. “He came from where most parents are; saying my life is OK, but I want a better life for my kids,” McLean said. Yet it wasn’t until he started working as a carpenter that he finally developed the ability to enjoy learning, and found his passion.  

Warwick Quinn is the CEO of the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation. He is working on trying to change the mindset in families and schools that the pathway to a good career lies through university. “There is an inter-generational prejudice against the trades,” he said. “I’m a victim of that myself. When I was at school it was ‘no’ to the trades, it was all about universities.” At the moment only 7 to 10 percent of school leavers go directly into a trade. Quinn is trying to get the “earn and learn” message through to the key influencers – “mum, dad, aunties and teachers. They play a big role in these decisions”. And the job is becoming urgent. “One of our main concerns is that 15 years ago New Zealand had a very low number of births. So we are looking at the number of school leavers being the lowest ever at a time when New Zealand needs them the most.” Around 65,000 workers are needed in construction in the next five years. Growth forecasts for qualified tradespeople in that time is about half that. 

Quinn says while there’s no magic bullet, there are ways to try to improve the situation. 

Improve the qualifications framework

The qualifications framework needs to be more nimble, Quinn believes. Trades are getting more specialised and many construction firms are sub-contracting work such as foundations, framing, exterior cladding, windows, and plaster board fixing. Firms are training people up in these areas but while they become highly skilled, they don’t necessarily gain qualifications from being proficient. They should be able to achieve qualifications in their area – “You might be short of trade qualified people but not short on skills – they’re two different things.” 

Give builders more credit(s)

Quinn thinks it’s ridiculous you can spend three years doing an arts degree and rise to level seven on the NZQA framework, but after three to four years of trade training – “very complex, technical and creative expert work” – you come out with level four. “Really? The message being sent to school leavers is that New Zealand values university more than trades – that if you want a higher qualification, don’t go into the trades. I think that’s wrong. In Scotland that’s been re-framed to be more equitable so that a trade qualification is equal to a bachelor degree.” 

Encourage companies to take on apprentices

Ten percent of New Zealand’s construction companies train 100 perecent of the industry’s apprentices. “We need to grow the number of firms that train,” Quinn said. “The average construction firm in New Zealand has 1.7 staff – 65 percent of firms have no staff, they’re one-man bands.” Those sole operators don’t tend to take on apprentices. But for six months in 2013, under the Government’s ‘reboot’ scheme, that changed, as subsidies were handed out to employers and apprentices. The scheme was aimed at improving numbers in the industry as the Christchurch re-build began, and to help cope with the Auckland housing crisis. Quinn believes a similar plan is needed now, and says it could be funded by an infrastructure levy on companies. 

Tap into girl power

Trying to entice women into the industry is slow and painful, but the numbers are increasing – although they’re going from from minuscule, to tiny. “At the moment it’s 2.5 to 3 percent across all trades,” Quinn said. It’s a BCITO priority to reposition trades in the minds of school girls, away from the image of heavy, dirty work. A three-year research project is being done at the moment to try and entice women into trades. “Many of them make the best employees, but we have to break those barriers down,” he said. At last weekend’s big building industry annual conference in Auckland, companies who had employed women reported no regrets, saying they were better multi-taskers, they were committed, hard workers, and good at managing people and projects. 

Continue to encourage skilled immigrants 

Even if BCITO manages to change the mindset of school leavers to pick up the tools, Quinn has no doubt New Zealand will continue to supplement the numbers with immigrants. “If we don’t take any immigrants in construction we will stop or stall.” 

Changing the mindset

Quinn cites South Korea as an example of what not to do. For many decades that country pushed and promoted university hard, so that 85 percent of school leavers went to one. Now they have too many qualified people and not enough to build the infrastructure they need. For the first time in South Korea’s history an apprenticeship scheme has been introduced. “They got it wrong. And we were going down that path.” He said there is some push-back now (in NZ), and there’s no longer stigma over choosing a trade. 

It is certainly a strong time to be a builder, and the CEO of the New Zealand Certified Builders Association, Grant Florence, believes this level of activity will continue for at least four years. Florence says it’s likely the rush in Auckland will continue after that, but things may well level off to the activity of pre-boom years elsewhere. “It’s solid till 2020/21 but after that I can’t see what will happen. If it does drop off it’s not going to be a Global Financial Crisis situation.” He does caution that more companies fail in growth times than in lean – usually those that don’t pay attention to the details, including securing labour, pricing jobs, and finishing them. Home renovators in Auckland at the moment are waiting a year for a builder – the pressure to race off to the next job is huge. Builders are finding it hard to get skilled people to work for them, particluarly electricians and plumbers – and concrete truck drivers. “Builders are facing significant wait times. It’s not the product, they can produce the concrete, they just don’t have the drivers.”  

Florence says apprentices are absolutely the key to propping up the industry, and the shortage worries him: “One of the frustrating things the industry sees is that a lot of secondary school careers advisors tell kids there’s only one place to go – university,” he said. “BCITO is going into schools to try and change that. They’re underscoring that there is a good, strong, professional career in the building industry.” He said that of the 15 finalists in the NZCB’s apprentice challenge final, five, like McLean, had university degrees and couldn’t get jobs. 

The industry has changed considerably over the years and it’s no longer a job for people who didn’t get School Certificate. Now builders must deal with more rules and regulations, consumer guarantees, and technological advances. “There are 40,000 decisions that go into building a house.”  The average age of carpenters is 42 and the workforce is ageing. Florence said by 2020 we will need another 15 percent in the industry, including another 5000 apprentices.

Is it doable? “Nope.” 

Chris McLean: “There’s so much in this trade to learn. It shouldn’t be seen as the drop-out-of-school option. It’s really hard – it’s not an easy career. You have to know how to read plans, deal with the council, book inspections. But it’s very rewarding. It shouldn’t be regarded as not being as successful as a university degree. It’s harder on your body … but you don’t have to pay to go to the gym! The more seriously you take it, the more rewarding it can be.” 

He has a plea for Year 12s and 13s – “Before you pay $40,000 to get a $1.50 piece of paper at the end of four years, ask, is there work there? Is it enjoyable? Are there other opportunities worth considering?”

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