Greg Wallace: Get trainee plumbers learning on the job more quickly

Jade Winter during her plumbing apprenticeship. The industry organisation would like the Government to shorten ...

Jade Winter during her plumbing apprenticeship. The industry organisation would like the Government to shorten plumbing-related pre-trades courses to three months.

OPINION: The Wellington region, like the rest of the country, is facing a desperate supply shortage of skilled labourers, particularly plumbers.  The shortage is serious, it's getting worse and the November earthquake has only deepened the crisis.

The number of homes for sale in Wellington is reportedly at a historic low while, at the same time, DIY, building supply and plumbing stores are seeing increased sales.

When house prices rise and people have more equity in their homes, it gives them confidence to invest in improvements rather than move.   Adding an ensuite bathroom and remodelling the kitchen are often key priorities.  According to QV, spending money on kitchens and bathrooms, within reason, will usually add value. 

However, there is a problem with wanting to make major improvements of this type and that is the severe skills shortages in the trades sector – with the shortage of plumbers and plumbing apprentices probably the most acute of all.

And these shortages have just got a lot worse since the north Canterbury earthquake and its ongoing aftershocks.  Plumbers are being called on for urgent repairs to water supplies, drainage and gas supply lines. It's a huge additional resource requirement and one that will last for months, possibly years, as new faults and issues are identified.

Even before the quakes, New Zealand desperately needed skilled plumbers.  While the DIY homeowner can do minor installation work, such as dishwashers and washing machines, all sanitary plumbing must be carried out by a qualified, authorised plumber, or a trainee supervised by a certifying plumber.

We see two key reasons for this critical shortage of plumbers. First, the figures show that the one-year, pre-trade courses, which the Government is investing heavily in to prepare young people for trade apprentices, simply aren't working for our sector.

Second, we believe strongly, as do many trade sectors, that school careers advisers are more focused on getting young people into university courses than trade ones – particularly plumbing. 

Our members in every part of the country are telling us they need more qualified plumbers to meet demand.  This shortfall can't simply be met through skilled migrants.  The only country with mutually recognised plumbing qualifications is Australia.  Other migrant plumbers need to be prepared to undertake significant retraining.   

The solution has to be producing more home-grown, New Zealand-trained plumbers.  On paper it's a no-brainer for a young person seeking a career in the trades: your training is paid for and you earn while you learn; pay rates for a qualified plumber are good; there will certainly be demand for your services, and there are very good opportunities to run your own business. 

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Yet we aren't getting nearly enough suitable candidates for apprenticeships. Currently, there are just 1918 apprentices in different stages of four-year plumbing related apprenticeships. The vast majority of students completing the pre-trade courses run by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) are not actually taking up apprenticeships in the sector. 

The number of people enrolled into plumbing-related pre-trade courses who go on to complete a full apprenticeship is extremely low and does not seem to warrant the investment the Government makes in these courses.

We estimate that, at around $10,000 per pre-trade trainee, that's cost taxpayers about $23.5 million. It's a good income stream for polytechs but it isn't delivering outcomes for the industry  and it's doing very little to address the plumber shortfall. 

Based on the long-term and widespread experience of our members, we believe the best way forward is to get young people earning and learning on the job much sooner – and to support businesses in providing that training.

We are asking the Government to shorten plumbing-related pre-trades courses to three months. Our members find that people who do come from the current courses need significant support to get them up to speed anyway. Instead, provide them with health and safety induction and basic plumbing 101 – height and confined-space training, tool-identification and making flashing – and then get them training on the job, is what they are saying.

We urge the Government to return to a redesigned version of the former Reboot scheme, which was in place until 2014 – providing a payment to the employer to help with training expenses and tools for the apprentice. Currently plumbing businesses taking on apprentices get no funding – despite the additional time and effort needed to train them. 

For those in our Masterlink programme, Master Plumbers would match the sum provided by the Government dollar for dollar.

We are not asking for more funding.  We are asking for some pre-trades funding to be transferred to a programme that gets young people who genuinely want careers in this sector learning and earning much faster – and gives businesses the resources to train them. 

At the same time, we need to make more young people aware of what our sector has to offer. Careers advisers need to become aware of the career potential of our sector. The old-fashioned perception is that it's dirty, back-breaking work. The reality is that technology has moved on in plumbing as it has in every other aspect of our lives. We have sophisticated machinery to do jobs like pipe-clearing. 

At Masterlink, we currently have university graduates doing plumbing apprenticeships, as well as a former accountant who has gone from doing plumbers' books to training to be one. Doesn't that speak volumes for what our industry has to offer?

Greg Wallace is chief executive of Master Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers NZ.

 - The Dominion Post

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