Friday, 12 March 2021

Calling all apprentices

As much as we would like to think that our societies - cultures - are constant, they are in an eternal state of flux... but glacially slow flux. Perhaps we could call it f-l-u-u-u-x. We make ourselves up as we go along, generation by generation. We generally can't see the change as it is happening, but - once we have a long enough individual time horizon - we can see the slow morph of our people over the decades.

Thirty years - a generation - allows us to see quite a lot of shift. If we compare 1990 to 2020, many things considered 'essential' to modern life have changed. VHS. MacGyver. Video stores. Ghost, Total Recall, and Edward Scissorhands. Typing pools with electronic typewriters. Line printers. "Re your letter of the 25th inst.". Landlines. Suits in the office and casual Fridays. After 5 office drinks. Buying booze in the bottle store (not the supermarket). Horse racing. Amateur sport. 'Racing' bikes (no mountain bikes). Driving drunk with one eye closed to see only one white line (yes, I know someone who did this). Salmon pink leather couches in the last flush of 1980s chic. Hair gel. Razor cuts. 

This generational change also happens in education, as macro-environmental change drives new skills and requirements for the workplace. Our schools and their education outputs are realigned to feed the industrial machine. In 1990, we had just raised the school leaving age to 16. "Tomorrow's Schools" was two years old, with bulk funding, untrained Boards of Trustees, 'deciles', and the Education Department split into 6 new organisations (Rice, 1992; Snook et al., 1999). If we go back 50 years, education was once stratified or 'streamed' by ability into Arts and Sciences at the top (because those top 5% of students would go to university); 'commercial practice' in the middle (the 35% of people would go into business or government cadetships); and the practical classes at the bottom (the 60% of people would go into the trades or become 'manual labour'). We were sorted, stamped, and sent out.

Then, in the 1980s, we had to float the New Zealand dollar, which sank like a stone. The resulting economic crisis required fiscal axeing rather than spending. We willingly climbed on the neoliberalist bandwagon with 'Rogernomics'. We SOEed. We CRIed. All the government training schemes went: the Electricity Department no longer trained electricians; the Ministry of Works no longer trained fitters, welders, builders, joiners, cabinet makers, or electricians; the Ministry of Transport and New Zealand Rail no longer trained mechanics, coach-builders, or automotive electricians.

Into the dearth of apprenticeships, and in response to business requirements, computing was taught in secondary schools from the late 1970s onwards. Over the next twenty years, computers became essential for work and recreation, shifting us from typing to keyboarding. We could draw plans for a house; tune a car engine; adjust a recipe; mix sound; explore 'what ifs'; run remote field experiments; programme robots; search the library. 'Commercial practice' became IT, and so part of degree training. Computerisation, digitisation, and digital literacies have opened up alternative futures for us. We learned new ways of being, and those ways were usually the mana of a degree. Few now choose trades.

Further, the pre-1980 tradespeople school-leavers - many who apprenticed in government departments - can now taste retirement. There is a looming national trades shortage. We cannot import tradespeople as other nations made the same mistakes as we did, and are just as short of skilled people.

A barrier to businesses contracting an apprentice has been the quality of aspiring tradespeople. Why is the quality lower? Where once there was probably a pool of 60% of school-leavers to choose from, there now may only be 5% of people who are interested in a trade. The numbers have reversed from degree to trade, and the smaller pool means it is harder to find quality applicants.

From the business perspective, not only are there fewer applicants, there is also a cost in time, supervision, and fees when contracting an apprentice. Where once there was enough fat in the system to have a journeyperson (recently qualified apprentice; Maggio, 1987, p. 71) supervise the new recruit, this seems to rarely happen now as journeypeople are few, and they are able to move to where the money is. Apprentices, as they learn on the job, need a lot of supervision, with almost all their work output needing to be checked - at least initially. While there is a lot of rhetoric about apprentices graduating to journeypeople without incurring fees, someone pays for that education. Usually it is the employer who pays the apprentice 'block' course fees; a cost which can be significant.

The current Labour Government is seeking to address the costs of apprenticeship by making trades block course training free via the Targeted Training and Apprenticeships Fund (TTAF), and by the employer grant of up to $16k/apprentice (Careers New Zealand, 2020; Tertiary Education Commission, 2020). TEC has just released a campaign, Vocation Nation, which you can see here:

This is a great initiative, but I wonder if this will be enough to redress forty years of trades training erosion. We are missing more than a generation of trades workers. Providing meaningful redress is likely to require more than what has been currently announced.

It will be interesting to see if the two-pronged programme works better than previous attempts. It is a good start. 



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