‘Stigma’ surrounding trades no help to housing shortage.

New Zealand's chronic shortage of skilled tradespeople - one estimate says we will need 56,000 more by 2022 - stems in part from a stigma school leavers have about working in construction, an industry expert believes.

Daniel Fuemana, head of Building, Construction and Services at the Unitec Institute of Technology (Unitec) in Auckland says: "To be blunt, students in our high schools who don't achieve academically have traditionally been directed to the trades.

"There is a stigma around the trades which has been around a long time and not gone away," he says. "The trades are often regarded as being not creative or 'those jobs where you get dirty' - and this has been one factor in the shortages we are now facing.

"We've got 40 to 50 employers waiting to take on workers right now," he says, "but we can't supply this demand - even though there has been an increased interest in building and construction courses over the past two years."

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"It's not that we don't have enough people in New Zealand to train or fill the vacancies," he says. "The challenge is how to get sufficient numbers of young people to shift careers and to change their perception of working in the industry."

"In reality there are many and varied roles in construction - including project management and quantity surveying - that require a high standard of training, creativity and professionalism."

Daniel Fuemana. Photo / Supplied.
Daniel Fuemana. Photo / Supplied.

Fuemana says Unitec has just opened a new state-of-the-art trades training facility with simulation and emulation equipment to give students extra hands-on time to develop their skills.

He says the trades are rewarding financially - a Ministry of Education report shows Unitec building graduates earn a median annual wage of $98,000 within eight years - with apprentices able to earn while completing their qualifications.

There are fears the trades shortage will impact the ability to ease the housing crisis with some reports suggesting Auckland alone is likely to need up to 100,000 more homes.

The new government says it is to build 100,000 houses (half of them in Auckland) within a decade under its KiwiBuild programme and intends to fast-track visas for overseas construction workers - and Fuemana agrees overseas workers will have to be hired if demand cannot be met locally.

More than 500 carpentry and plumbing and gas fitting apprentices are currently at Unitec and Fuemana says the idea of increasing the number of spaces available is a definite option - if enough people can be found to fill them.

Despite this Fuemana says an increasing number of university graduates - people with law, economic and arts degrees - are enrolling in Unitec trades courses because they are unable to find jobs in their chosen fields.

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"I know of quite a few with law degrees who are looking at the trades," he says. "With the labour shortages facing the construction industry, now is a very good time to be considering a career in this industry."

His comments come as the industry is voicing concerns over the shortages. One organisation, the NZ Institute of Building, says the country will require up to 56,000 more skilled workers by 2022; Civil Contractors New Zealand (CCNZ), says an extra 30,000 will be needed by 2019.

CCNZ says not enough people are being drawn into the construction industry - which it says is expected to grow by nearly five per cent by 2019 - while figures in the government's National Construction Pipeline Report 2017 show residential, commercial and infrastructure building activity is set to boom at least until 2020 when it is forecast to reach a record $42b.

Statistics NZ figures released last month show nearly 80 per cent of the country's 4,600 construction firms have vacancies.

Fuemana says Unitec does a lot of work with schools, parents - and the Maori and Pacific community - to discuss careers in the trades for school leavers.

"Our role is to provide a training service for the community - and to help meet the challenge facing the construction industry which has to look at staffing when deciding whether or not to commit to building projects," he says.

He says the financial rewards are in many cases higher for graduates of trades courses than for those graduating with a university degree - and most continue to work either full or part time while studying for a trades certificate, diploma in quantity surveying, degree in construction management or completing an apprenticeship.

A Ministry of Education report tracking the median earnings of students in the first eight years following graduation supports this view.

A Unitec Bachelor graduate in the building industry, for example, has a median starting wage of $56,000. Within eight years the median salary climbs to $98,000.

Compared to these figures the ministry report shows university bachelor of arts graduates start on a median wage of $51,571, rising after eight years to $60,714.

Fuemana says Unitec is on first name terms with the big players in the building industry meaning what students learn on their courses reflects best industry practice - and the use of the latest technology, methods and materials.

Read more from Unitec here