The remedy for shortage of skills

By Raewyn Court

Companies training apprentices feed their industries, writes Raewyn Court.

Fiona Kingsford says apprentices' bosses need support too. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Fiona Kingsford says apprentices' bosses need support too. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Management support, not money, is the key to more companies taking on apprentices, according to a recent study by Competenz, the industry training organisation for the engineering, baking, food and beverage manufacturing industries.

The study looked at skills shortages in those sectors and what it would take to increase the number of companies hiring apprentices. It showed that the majority - 75 per cent - don't hire apprentices, leaving just a quarter of all companies in those sectors to train newcomers. While many don't employ tradespeople who could train them, there are still 27 per cent who are eligible but choose not to, mainly because they lack the skills and resources to take them on.

The study showed that the biggest incentive for a company to take on an apprentice is management support, which increased the likelihood by 35 per cent, as opposed to financial incentives or government subsidies, which increased the likelihood by just 8 per cent. Support can include a recruitment service providing suitable candidates, help with supervising and online systems to track their training.

Competenz CEO John Blakey says apprenticeships present an opportunity to fill the skills shortage gap and provide long-term career paths for school leavers. "This study highlighted that there are many small New Zealand businesses that could take on apprentices with the right support, something that needs to happen if we are to build a stronger and more productive skills-based economy. Skills convert immediately into increased productivity, which increases profits."

Fiona Kingsford, general manager of trade training at Competenz, agrees. "If we want to be a country that grows on added value and manufactured products, we need tradesmen.

"By developing our own people we not only provide employment but also remove the need to import skills."

For the first couple of years, an apprentice is a cost to a company while they learn a job's basics. But, after that, an apprentice adds to a business bottom line. "Interestingly, this does not seem to be the main driver for the companies we already deal with," says Kingsford.

"Companies like to be involved in passing knowledge on to the next generation and ensuring there is a pool of qualified people for the benefit of their industry and country. And they are passionate about it, too. They know that if no one trained, they would not have a business at all."

Kingsford says that for many companies, government subsidies such as Job-ops and Skills for Growth add just one more obstacle to hiring the right apprentice. "They can often be a deterrent," adds Blakey. Subsidies can come with conditions like hiring someone with low numeracy and literacy skills, the long-term unemployed or those with no school qualifications.

"Unfortunately," Kingsford says, "the reality is that to do an apprenticeship, you need numeracy and literacy skills and you also need to be work-ready. That means turning up to work on time and knowing what an eight-hour work day is."

So, by adding these conditions, companies are asked to take on too much. "They already provide a classroom in the form of a workshop, a supervisor as a teacher and the materials required to learn. Having to teach basic skills is just one hurdle too many."

The Competenz study showed that 14 per cent of those able to take on apprentices were unaware of how the apprenticeship system worked, and 11 per cent had unqualified staff who could do an apprenticeship but were unwilling to do so.

Kingsford says companies need to be made more aware of the apprenticeship system "be it through the media, company open days, learning hubs or company employees talking to each other. There is a misconception that apprenticeships no longer exist, but they are, in fact, alive and thriving."

To address the problem of unqualified staff unwilling to take on an apprenticeship, Kingsford says Competenz can give support to apprentices taking on the four-year commitment. "If someone is already in employment and wants to upskill, we make sure they fully understand the requirements and have the numeracy and literacy skills required or a programme in place to help in these areas.

"We check the company has a suitable supervisor and the right equipment, and we support the learner in the workplace to ensure they are being trained to a quality standard."

There are financial benefits for newly qualified tradespeople, who can earn between $50,000 and $60,000, and Kingsford says that a tradesman's work offers challenges that you won't get as an unqualified worker. "Qualified tradespeople often set up their own businesses or go on to earn higher qualifications, which lead to higher salaries and even more rewarding careers."

If a company has already employed a young person and wants to enrol them in an apprenticeship, Competenz tests the candidate's attitude and aptitude, "strength tests" the company to ensure it is capable of completing the four-year programme, then visits regularly to support the apprentice.

The Government provides funding for apprenticeships to provide these services, but the funding is targeted at supporting the apprentice.

Kingsford says their research identified the need to offer support to the employer. "Ninety per cent of New Zealand businesses are SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and they often struggle with the recruitment and management of employees. They need support, too, not just the learners," she says.

"What is clear," says Blakey, "is that without some sort of intervention, the number entering apprenticeships is likely to remain static, leaving a dedicated few training for the needs of the whole nation. But with the right support, more companies would be likely to take on an apprentice, enriching their own companies and building a more highly skilled, highly productive environment sector-wide."

- NZ Herald

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