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The trade advantage


Fifty years ago, the options for school-leavers in New Zealand were pretty simple and straightforward.

If you were from a wealthy family with a tradition of working in the professions, you went to university and studied law, medicine or commerce. Course fees, if any, were minimal and a student bursary covered expenses.

If tertiary study wasn’t an option, there were loads of opportunities in the trades, and apprenticeships were relatively easy to come by. This involved training on the job, perhaps some polytechnic exams.

If you were good you could forge a successful career in the electrical, plumbing and automotive industries, among many others. It could be quite an ad hoc situation without vetting of employers and their ability to teach.

And of course, the divide between the sexes was much more pronounced, with nursing, teaching and secretarial work generally regarded as the most suitable occupations for girls.

While dips in economic growth have seen unemployment figures rise then fall, often quite dramatically, over that period, and while dire predictions of jobs being lost to automation continue to be made, we’re currently in a time of relative prosperity.

As long as the pressure on the housing market continues and construction remains a booming industry, school leavers — girls and boys — will keep enjoying excellent opportunities for training on the job, avoiding racking up a huge student loan debt. Indeed, many have the potential to earn significant amounts at a young age.

This is by no means an inferior choice to academia, with expected standards in both spheres continuing an upward trajectory as modern technology kicks in and new skills – both practical and intellectual – are required throughout society.

These days the support for former high school students who want to earn as they learn is much more comprehensive than it used to be.

She is chief executive at Competenz, a large industry-training organisation which works with employers and learners in 37 different industries, developing nationally recognised qualifications.

“The baby boom is actually over and fewer young people are coming out of our high schools. This shrinking pool is going to put real pressure on industries such as construction and the infrastructure around it,” she says.

“Plumbing, electrical, and engineering are all growing especially fast and we need smart kids to train in those areas.

“Once there was a perception that the trades were somehow dirty and hard work but these days that’s often far from being the case.”

Competenz works closely with schools in order to inform the 70 per cent of leavers who don’t go to university of the career potential in on-site training.

“It’s a stepping stone,” says Fiona. “We need them to understand that it can lead to other things such as owning your own business and we emphasise that you can be earning well, while you’re learning, with no student debt to worry about.”

Hayden Watt describes himself as a high school dropout. “I wasn’t an academic person so I decided to get out and find a job.”

It just so happened that a friend’s father, a sub-contractor in the fire protection industry, was looking for a trainee. Hayden jumped at the chance.

“I soon found that I was good at it, and I wasn’t really surprised by that because I’ve always been better with my hands on things other than a keyboard.

“I like the variety – short jobs and longer ones where you’re working on-site for a while and getting to know people in other trades.

“Every day is different, with new challenges.”

Hayden’s hard work has certainly paid off. At 28 he owns his own home and has just taken delivery of a shiny new ute.

He’s about to start his own business and plans to take a break from sprinklers for a while in order to get himself well-prepared.

“Competenz have been awesome in terms of the support they’ve given me. I’m about to do a couple of courses about running small businesses and I hope that I’ll be ready then and can start training other people up.”

George Braselle is another notable success story. A keen sailor since he was young, the 21-year-old is enjoying the best of two worlds, undertaking a four-year apprenticeship in mechanical engineering at Titan Marine Engineering in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour.

“They’ve let me be very flexible and take time off to go sailing,” says the young globetrotter who recently returned from Croatia, where he was sailing with a US professional team.

“The good thing about what I’m doing in engineering is that the pay rises as you progress, so I feel that I’m doing pretty well for myself.”

During the 2014 New Zealand visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, George was asked to take them out on the Waitamata Harbour.

“It was a real honour to meet them,” says George, whose task was made easier by the fact that the couple are both accomplished sailors.

“Since the industry training organisations came into being about 20 years ago, we’ve got girls breaking into areas that weren’t previously regarded as their domain,” says Fiona.

Marlane Harmer, 24, door knocked all over Napier when she was looking to learn mechanical engineering but most employers weren’t prepared to give her a chance.

“I was working as a barmaid when I heard of an opportunity at Ravensdown Fertilisers. I sent my CV straight away and to my amazement I got in. I’ve done two years now, with another one to go and after that I’ll stay on for a while because it’s such a great place to work and the pay’s good too.

“Things were a bit tough at the start but now it just gets better and better. Most of my colleagues are guys but I’ve never found any sexism there.”

In 2015 Marlane was awarded the Competenz Stuart Tolhurst Apprentice Trophy.

“My family and friends and especially my little girl Keele are very proud of me,” she says, modestly.

Ultimately Marlane hopes to specialise in undersea welding but isn’t sure who will teach her the skills to do so. She’s hoping that the Navy might be an option. If necessary, she’ll go overseas.

Meanwhile Fiona and her team are doing their best to get the message out.

“We’re trying to get into schools ourselves, along with potential employers, so we can point out apprenticeships can set you on an exciting, well-paid life path.”



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