In the past, apprenticeships were often seen as something for people who didn't get good enough grades to go to university. Times have changed, reports Danielle Wright

Recruiting specialist Hays New Zealand recently revealed research which suggests that apprenticeships may now be the 'magic bullet' to close the skills gap and end youth unemployment.

"There has been a shift to some extent," says Jason Walker, managing director of Hays New Zealand.

"Not everyone wants to go to university and the stigma attached to vocational pathways is reducing -- although there still needs to be more done to further reduce the stigma associated with vocational training over university study."

He says the perception you'll earn more long-term by completing a degree, rather than an apprenticeship, is still there, but the reality is that many tradespeople earn excellent salaries, so it's no longer always the case.


While the tertiary education system turns out record numbers of graduates struggling to find work, many trades are crying out for employees, particularly in engineering and construction industries.

"The Christchurch rebuild and the ongoing employability of many tradies during the downturn has recently helped to reduce the stigma," says Walker.

"People saw that tradespeople were still needed during the downturn, while many degree-qualified professionals saw the demand for their skills drop."

The rising cost of university education has also led some young people to favour an apprenticeship over a degree and there are more options than ever for apprenticeships, which now exist in virtually every industry sector. For example, Starbucks launched an apprenticeship programme in the UK in 2012, offering young people a foot on the first rung of the ladder of a retail management career and the chance to build transferable skills.

"Most people know of at least one person who has graduated in softer disciplines, such as fine arts or social sciences, who struggled to find work in their field," says Walker.

"In our increasingly technologically sophisticated world of work, apprenticeships are delivering entry-level candidates who are job-ready."

Statistics New Zealand's labour market statistics for the September 2015 quarter show the highest growth in the labour force was for people aged 20-29 years.

But apprenticeships are no longer just for the youngest worker, with changes made in 2014 to include anyone over the age of 16 in the NZ Apprenticeship scheme. Previously, it was available only for people aged between 16 and 21.

Unlike internships, which have received a bad rap for being unpaid and solely job-based, apprenticeships are paid and combine classroom learning with on-the-job training, including work experience over a much longer period of time.

"The employer and educational institution are often in contact regarding the apprentice's progress and in some arrangements the apprentice has to pass all or most of their subjects as a condition of their ongoing employment," says Walker.

Hays reported that 59 per cent of organisations in New Zealand are experiencing skills shortages, masked in some areas by the recession.

Our shallow pool of skilled workers are also at risk of being poached by overseas companies experiencing their own skills shortages.

"Some people have deemed the skills shortage the result of an education system that has failed to prepare young people for working life, while others describe it as a symptom of employer efforts to shift the burden of training employees onto academia rather than investing in it themselves.

"Whatever the catalyst, the consensus is that apprenticeships could hold the key to bridging the gap," agrees Nick Deligiannis, managing director of Hays in Australia and New Zealand.

"Technological advances have removed many career opportunities, but that could also usher in a new form of apprenticeship, one where companies train entry-level employees - with or without a degree - in the skills they need to hit the ground running in their chosen profession and add value to the organisation," says Deligiannis.

"Such organisations will future-proof their skills pipeline thanks to a structured training and development programme."

Apprenticeships are also being promoted through high schools with BCITO (the largest provider of construction trade apprenticeships in New Zealand) providing a Gateway guide for schools to support pathways into the industry for students.

This includes helping students tailor their NCEA level 2 studies to the skills required in a particular industry, such as construction and infrastructure.

Across the Tasman, more and more high schools are opening new Trade Training Centres to provide students with apprenticeship training while keeping them in school.

"Scholarships and awards in colleges are still heavily biased towards recognising students moving on to degree courses.

"So there is still a great deal of work to be done in New Zealand around actively promoting apprenticeships through scholarships and awards, similar to what is occurring with graduate courses," says Walker.

BCITO champions young tradespeople who have gone on to run their own businesses within a few years of finishing their apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships are also a pathway to working opportunities around the world, with tradespeople often on the immigration skilled occupation lists.

Going straight into paid work and being trained for free, rather than leaving study with a hefty student debt make apprenticeships a smart option for the right person.
If not the magic bullet, at least they are a step in the right direction for easing youth unemployment.