Greg Wallace: We have a shortage of plumbers that better training could fix

If a young person thinks they want to do an apprenticeship, they should have a good idea after three months of the basics. Photo / 123RF
If a young person thinks they want to do an apprenticeship, they should have a good idea after three months of the basics. Photo / 123RF

• Greg Wallace is CEO of Master Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers NZ

About 40 houses a day are being built in Auckland and Housing Minister Nick Smith has said that needs to be more like 70 to 100 to meet demand. With a critical shortage of plumbers in Auckland, these homes could well be without water.

A 2015 report by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) found a shortfall of 602 plumbers in Auckland. We estimate that's now about 30 per cent higher and it's not just an Auckland problem - our members from every part of the country are experiencing issues recruiting qualified staff.

From the public's point of view, the solution must look simple - encourage skilled migrants or put more people through apprenticeships. Surely there must be plenty of trainees coming through, given the millions the Government invests in pre-trade training courses, including in plumbing, gasfitting and drainlaying?

Unfortunately, neither option is providing a solution for a sector stretched to its limits, and has low numbers taking up apprenticeships.

Unlike some trade sectors, we cannot address the shortage through skilled migrants. The only country with mutually recognised plumbing qualifications is Australia. All other migrant plumbers need to be prepared to retrain.

For apprenticeships, we just aren't getting enough suitable candidates to meet demand. Currently, the industry has 1918 people in different stages of four-year plumbing-related apprenticeships. By contrast, the electrical industry has 4085 enrolments.

The one-year, fulltime plumbing-related pre-trade courses run by the Tertiary Education Commission are billed as giving participants the knowledge and experience to enter an apprenticeship in the industry. Yet most of these students don't end up in plumbing apprenticeships.

The number of people enrolled in plumbing-related pre-trade courses who go on to complete a full apprenticeship are extremely low and do not seem to warrant the investment the Government makes in these courses.

We estimate that, at around $10,000 per pre-trade trainee, that courses cost taxpayers about $23.5 million. It's a good income stream for polytechs but it isn't delivering outcomes for the industry.

Clearly something needs to change. We are proposing to the Government that plumbing-related pre-trades courses are shortened to three months. Our members are telling us those trainees who do come from the courses need significant support to get them up to starter speed anyway.

Provide them with health and safety induction and basic plumbing 101 - working-at-height and confined-space training, tool identification and making flashing - and then give them to us.

If a young person thinks they want to do an apprenticeship, they should have a good idea after three months of the basics. This way, if they do, they can be learning on the job and earning an apprentice salary much sooner. The shorter pre-trade training could also be included in school programmes, with day release.

Now we come to the crunch. Currently plumbing businesses that take on apprentices get no funding - despite the additional time and effort needed to train them.

We propose combining shorter pre-trades courses with a return to a redesigned version of the Reboot scheme the Government ran until 2014. The Reboot involved a $2000 payment to assist with training expenses and $2000 for the apprentice's tools or training.

In our experience, apprentices tended to spend their $2000 on stuff like PlayStations. We suggest providing the full amount to the employer to help with training expenses and provision of tools. For those using our Masterlink programme, Master Plumbers would then match that sum dollar for dollar - on top of the $12,000 the industry already shoulders to put each apprentice through block course training.

We're not asking for more funding. We're asking for some funding to be transferred from programmes that aren't meeting industry needs into one that gets young people who genuinely want careers in this sector learning more efficiently.

There's a misconception that plumbing is all about dealing with human waste. Technology has moved on. Pipe clearing is handled by sophisticated machinery, usually by specialist companies, and only about 1 per cent of our members do this work. Modern plumbing is a highly-skilled, in-demand and rewarding profession.

Through a plumbing apprenticeship they are setting themselves up for a career where there is huge demand for their skills, where they can earn a good salary, and where there are very good opportunities to be their own boss. That's the scenario careers advisers should be putting in front of our young people.

- NZ Herald

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