Putting trades on the table

Our skills can come from everywhere. Learning from experience is the educational wave of the future, says Jane McCarroll.

I’m curious about something. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? Have you achieved your dreams? What do your kids want to be when they grow up? Do you have the same hopes and dreams for them as they have for themselves?

 When my children finished primary school a year ago there was a final assembly where each child was given their moment in the sun when they were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. 

 Their answers were fascinating as much for what they said as what they didn’t say. Not one single child said they wanted to be a tradesperson. Not one single child wanted to be a plumber, an electrician or a carpenter. Trades didn’t even get a mention. 

 And get this; heaps of kids wanted to be YouTubers. Imagine that. YouTubers. How many more YouTubers do we need?

 My dear old dad (who’d forgotten to put in his hearing aids) just couldn’t make it out. After the ceremony he asked me “Why do so many kids want to be scuba divers?” Bless.

 I’d like my kids to be whatever they would like to be, which will hopefully include being gainfully employed. I’d also like my kids to come through their education without a crippling student loan. 

The Tertiary Education Commission released research late last year reporting one in three students didn’t complete a bachelor degree. But I bet they came out with a student loan. 

University isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t for me – having said that, in my day, I thought you only went to university to be an academic, a lawyer, a teacher, or a doctor.

 When I left school digital innovation (which has kept me employed for 20 years) hadn’t yet surfaced as a job. Education about what tertiary education is available has come along in moonbeams since I finished school.

There are now career fairs, where organisations are falling over themselves to engage and inspire career choices for young people.

 My time at Skills thus far has been enlightening, to say the least. I had no idea actually how many jobs there are available in trades. Not just the volume of jobs, but how many different career opportunities that are available in that space. What’s more, once they are trained, specialist trades are keenly sought after by employers in New Zealand and all over the world.

 The other twist is that even though the number is hard to measure, only 10-30 percent of trade firms train apprentices. There’s a huge shortage of young people entering the well-paid hourly workforce. 

It got me thinking: If there were pretty much guaranteed jobs, with the opportunity to take those skills all over the world, isn’t it worth putting trades on the table?

 I started my career in retail. I remember the stigma that retail was what you did if you didn’t have many options. How very untrue. I was managing staff at 20, had customer service, daily reconciliation, supplier negotiation, inventory management, staff recruitment and retention and business development under my belt by 21. It was a commerce degree on the fly.

 When I went on my OE – I did a coach camping holiday around Europe and was asked to train as tour leader. At the time I thought it was because I liked the social side of things. 

I had just turned 22 and I didn’t realise what skills I already had – daily reconciliation, negotiation, communication, managing multiple currencies. Negotiating in five languages when I spoke only one. Go me.

This was pre Euro, pre cellphone, pre Google maps and on one of the tours we had a head-on collision in Germany. Although there were no major injuries on either side some of us ended up in hospital for checkups and the bus was pretty munted. 

 My driver needed to stay behind to assist with the police inquiry – so there I was, age 22, with a neck brace and 35 people who were halfway through a holiday for which they had spent a long time saving and planning and no bus driver.

 Overnight discussions between me in Germany and my head office in England ensured a bus arriving the following morning to put the tour back on track. 

 My head office sent me a fax encouraging me to keep my chin up –
I challenge anyone to have their chin in any other position while wearing a neck brace. 

 After my three-to-four week tours I would hop off the bus, and hand over my expenses completed (from daily reconciliation). The head office was amazed. This had never happened before. It was generally a two-to-three day job for my peers who spent hours collating receipts and trying to reconcile accounts and currencies.

 I think trades are in the same boat. People just don’t get it. Despite a need for skilled workers to fill good-paying jobs in the trades, there’s still a notion about apprenticeships being less desirable than a university education.

I read some research about apprentices earning $165,000 more than university graduates by the age of 28. Management consultancy firm Scarlatti tracked the average yearly income, as reported through IRD tax records, of a cohort of 19-year-olds who left school between 2003-07 until 2016, when they turned 32 and found that, by the age of 28, apprentices earned $165,000 more than BA, BCom and BSc graduates.

 In an industry where demand is high, supply is low, and the future skills gained from a trade are so highly valued they could take you anywhere in the world – that sounds pretty appealing to me.

Our skills can come from everywhere. Learning from experience is the educational wave of the future. Earning while you learn sounds even better.   

Jane McCarroll is the strategic partnership lead for the Skills Group including IMNZ, The Institute of Management New Zealand, helping leaders stand up and lead since 1946.

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