Enrolments across a large swathe of trade courses offered in Northland have shot up more than 50 per cent since the Covid lockdown, largely as a result of the Government's fees-free apprenticeship initiative.
Those without any meaningful work, people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and employees who opted to change careers after the lockdown took advantage of the free training and the fact tradies are in huge demand at present.
NorthTec's overall student applications for trades' programmes are up 61 per cent or 193 more students compared to the same time last year, and enrolment numbers increased 48 per cent.
The trades programmes are construction, carpentry, painting and decorating, road transport, workplace health and safety, architectural technology, civil, automotive, electrical and mechanical engineering.
NorthTec acting chief executive Jon Smith said it was clear the Government's TTAF (Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund) has had a positive impact in supporting people in the region to undertake education and training that they might not otherwise have been able to do.
The Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund, also known as free trades training, will support learners to undertake vocational education and training without fees.
The TTAF will cover fees from July 1, 2020, until December 31, 2022, and will be paid directly to tertiary education organisations by the Government.
He said the number of enrolments for these programmes was likely to continue increasing until the start of semester one in mid-February.
"We have seen especially large increases in the number of students applying and enrolling for electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and automotive engineering programmes, so we are preparing to have two intakes for each of these trades in order to accommodate the increased numbers."
Construction-related programmes have also seen a jump in student numbers this year, he said.
"We manage additional intakes by adjusting timetables and maximising resources and workshop space. We also create waiting lists for classes which are over-subscribed."
Whangarei-born Matthew Balcanquall is one of hundreds of Northlanders doing his apprenticeship and sees his future in panel beating and car painting.
He started his three-year apprenticeship at Kevin Gray Panelbeating and Car Painting in July last year after a recommendation by Tai Tokerau Trades Training.
The 20-year-old studied auto engineering for a year at NorthTec and, while doing work experience in Whangarei, Covid hit and lockdown rendered him unemployed.
"I couldn't work for six to seven weeks during the lockdown and I wasn't sure how it will all pan out. But I was interested in panel beating as I did a few work experiences with a company that repaired farming equipment.
"The Government's fees-free programme is really good. I would not have been able to afford the training without it."
At the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO), apprentice numbers in 15 trades in Northland saw a growth of 53 per cent at the end of last year compared with the same time in 2019.
Six-hundred-and-twenty apprentices had enrolled at the end of December last year compared with 405 at the end of 2019.
BCITO chief executive Toby Beaglehole said it was great to see more employers taking on apprentices and so many young people going into training.
"It's an absolute win-win. The apprentice gets to earn while they learn, and for the employer, it is an investment in their business and the industry."
Richard Lunn, director of Tai Tokerau Trades Training and Smart Trade Solutions, which specialises in dealing with apprentices mainly in the motor and engineering industries, says the fees-free initiative has been the "deal-breaker" for many employers who previously sat on the fence about taking on new apprentices.
The Northland Collision Repair Initiative he runs has seen at least nine new collision repair apprentices signed up in the period after the lockdown, between July and October last year.
"This is more than the same period in previous years. This number will be far exceeded this year as I already have many employers ready and waiting to sign up apprentices and just as many asking me to find them new employees/apprentices as soon as I possibly can.
"I have been in this role for over 20 years now, and haven't seen anything like this before."
Lunn said a new apprentice generally cost an employer for the first year or so until their skill level rose to a point where they could be productive, and make the business some money.