Winning over parents to get kids on the tools

Friday 8 Mar 2019

If you think there’s a skill shortage in the trades now - just wait. In five or six years things are going to get dire, as a low birth year 16 years ago leaves an even bigger hole in the number of apprentices needed to replace an ageing building workforce. It’s a scenario that the industry is trying to counter with an advertising campaign designed at winning over the parents of young graduates.

In New Zealand, the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) campaign aims to break down prejudices when it comes to which direction their children's careers head. Called "A Tricky Chat", it cleverly skewers a 'coming out' type scenario where a teen admits he wants to be a tradie.

BCITO chief executive Warwick Quinn says a child’s career choice is influenced 80 percent by their parents, and the prevailing attitude is still that the best career is one that starts at university. He wants to change that, pointing out that it’s no longer the case that at the end of a career the worker with a degree has earned more than the tradesperson.

"There is a long-held cultural and inter-generational prejudice against the trades," says Quinn. "It's inherited ancestry out of the UK - 'my grandparents left England so my father could go to uni'. Scandinavian countries hold the trades close to heart and accord qualifications, which are held in esteem."

Because of a population dip in 2003, fewer school leavers will be available at a time when the economy enjoys very strong employment figures. So, an already labour-strapped industry will be even shorter of candidates for apprenticeships. “That needs to be understood, and that needs to change,” says Quinn.

At the moment, BCITO is running 12,000 apprentices. For the last four years the numbers have grown steadily by a thousand a year. But it’s still not enough for all the construction work in the pipeline. “We have a small window of four to five years to address some of our concerns … after that it’s going to get really tough.”

BCITO is attacking the issue on several fronts, the latest being the campaign launched this week. Hand in hand with convincing parents their child would have a good future on the tools is convincing the government to improve the recognition of the skills apprentices gain after four years of on-the-job learning. At the moment, a fully-qualified builder emerges from four years of study with a qualification that is just one step past Year 13 - a Level 4 qualification. A university degree of three years gets you a Level 7 recognition.

Quinn says it’s ridiculous that a fully-qualified mechanic with years of complex study and cognitive thinking skills emerges with an inferior qualification to that of an art history graduate. Another area the organisation sees as inequitable is training funding. Builders who pass on their life’s skills to apprentices are the only teachers who don’t get paid, says Quinn.

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