Sector leaders in the trades industry are growing more and more concerned as the worker shortage continues to bare its teeth. The drive to train apprentices combined with an ageing workforce and disinterested school leavers has put the sector in turmoil. Minister of Education Chris Hipkins says the Government needs to provide more support for employers and make the profession more attractive to school leavers. Reporter Caroline Fleming spoke to sector leaders and the Government to find out what exactly is coming next for the industry.
A perfect storm is brewing in the trades sector as a large pool of qualified workers gets close to retirement and some smaller businesses do away with young apprentices.
Sector leaders say the aging workforce combined with the stigma of trades being "inferior to an academic pathway" is creating a worker shortage "that is only going to get worse".
Managing director of Tauranga Hardware and Plumbing, Craig McCord, said the sector was "desperately short of qualified plumbers" with "no relief in sight".
McCord said the average age of a plumber in New Zealand was 55, with the majority heading into retirement by around 60. He said it was such a physical job that their bodies were "broken" by then.
This was causing major concerns about the future of the profession, he said.
Back in the day, he said his plumbing company would train around two apprentices at a time, but with such a shortage of qualified workers, they were now training between seven and 10.
However, this was not a reality for many smaller trade businesses as apprentices were expensive to train in the first two years then once they began creating returns, other businesses would come along and poach them, he said.
He said many one-man businesses used to always have an apprentice, now virtually none of them do. There was "no point" or "incentive" for many businesses to train apprentices anymore.
Priority One data showed employment growth in Tauranga in 2018 was one of the highest in the country partnered with a low rate of unemployment.
In both Tauranga and the Western Bay, construction was highlighted as the industry that had created the most new jobs.
Classic Builders director Peter Cooney said the construction sector was booming at unprecedented rates and putting a major strain on the workforce.
He said there were not as many young people coming through the trades as labour was not as trendy anymore.
New apprentice numbers across the board were low and, combined with a lack of qualified builders, compounded a problem that had been brewing for years.
"If things continue like this, it's going to get really tough."
Owner of Sheldon Electrical, Norman Sheldon, said he no longer trained apprentices. He said he did not currently need one and, in the past, he had experiences where they "lost interest in five minutes".
He said the shortage was one that had been affecting the industry for a long time and he believed training apprentices was a worthwhile thing to do.
However, he said as the apprentice salary was so low, many chose to walk away to earn more before getting their qualification.
Tauranga plumbing apprentice Tom Buhr said he was keen to get in the trades as it was a profession that he knew would stick with him no matter where he went.
He said as a 27-year-old, he wished he had been encouraged into the trades when he was at school as it had been painted as something where "people didn't have to use their heads".
BCITO chief executive Warwick Quinn said the worker shortage was a "looming problem that is only going to get worse".
He said the ageing workforce and a low birthrate back in the early 2000s were both problems colliding at the same time.
The sector was working hard to make the trades attractive again and break the stigma that they were "inferior to an academic pathway", he said.
He said the next step in addressing the problem was to diversify the workforce by attracting and retaining women, as the current number of women on the tools only sat at 3 per cent.
BCITO wanted women to not dismiss the trades as a career option and was researching how to accommodate them in a currently "blokey" sector, he said.
The organisation was also working to culturally diversify the sector in the same way, he said.
He said it also came down to the Government supporting employers to train their apprentices, whether this be with financial assistance or "training the trainers".
Minister of Education Chris Hipkins said improvements to increase support for apprentices were long overdue to get on top of New Zealand's skill shortages.
He said the Government made a good start last year by making two years of apprentice training free, but there was still a lot more to do.
"There's no doubt employers need more support. We are currently considering fundamental changes to the vocational education system as a whole to address these skills shortages and fix a training system that isn't working as it should."
He said the Government wanted to grow vocational education and apprenticeships and promote it as an option for school leavers.
They had put in place the Mana in Mahi scheme to assist young unemployed people into trade training, he said.
1st Call Recruitment managing director Phill Van Syp said trade employers were in desperate times due to a "huge shortage" of skilled tradespeople.
Regional commissioner from the Ministry of Social Development, Mike Bryant, said trades and labouring were among the most common areas into which they assisted people into jobs.
He said they had noticed strong demand in the construction sector for qualified tradespeople.
In the Tauranga area, he said the Ministry had more than 25 contracted services and industry partnerships, that often supported people to acquire qualifications, some in trade positions.