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“The shortage is serious, it’s getting worse and the recent earthquakes have only deepened the crisis. In Wellington and the top of the South Island, plumbers are being called on for urgent repairs to water supplies, drainage and gas supply lines”

Where have all the plumbers gone? – By Greg Wallace

Housing Minister Dr Nick Smith has been quoted as saying that Auckland needs to be building 70 to 100 houses a day to meet demand. And our largest city is going backwards – currently only about 40 new homes are being built on average each day.

But even if the City of Sails is to achieve that target, given the current critical shortage of plumbers in Auckland, these homes could well be without water. A 2015 report by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) found a shortfall of 602 plumbers in Auckland. We estimate that’s now about 30% higher. And it’s not just an Auckland problem – our members from every part of the country are experiencing issues recruiting qualified staff.

The shortage is serious, it’s getting worse and the recent earthquakes have only deepened the crisis. In Wellington and the top of the South Island, 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. These are plumbers that might otherwise have been drawn to Auckland.

Stretched to the limits

From the public’s point of view, the solution must look simple – encourage skilled migrants or put more people through apprenticeships. Surely there must be plenty of trainees coming through, given the millions the government invests in pre-trade training courses, including in plumbing, gasfitting and drainlaying?

Unfortunately, neither option is providing a solution for a sector that is stretched to its limits, and has low numbers taking up apprenticeships. Unlike some trade sectors, we cannot solve the shortage of plumbers through skilled migrants. The only country with mutually recognised plumbing qualifications is Australia. All other migrant plumbers need to be prepared to retrain.

And when it comes to apprenticeships, we just aren’t getting enough suitable candidates to meet demand. In November 2016, the industry had 1918 people in different stages of four-year plumbing-related apprenticeships. By contrast, the electrical industry had 4085 enrolments.

Poor outcome for the industry

The one-year, full-time plumbing-related pre-trade courses run by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) are billed as giving participants the knowledge and experience to enter an apprenticeship in the industry. Yet, in reality, most of these students don’t end up in plumbing apprenticeships.

The numbers of people enrolled in plumbing-related pre-trade courses who go on to complete a full apprenticeship are extremely low and do not seem to warrant the investment the government makes in these courses.

Master Plumbers estimates that, at around $10,000 per pre-trade trainee, that’s a cost to taxpayers of about $23.5 million. It’s a good income stream for polytechs, but it isn’t delivering outcomes for the industry.

Plumbing 101

Clearly something needs to change. We are proposing to the government that plumbing-related pre-trades courses are shortened to three months. Our members are telling us those trainees who do come from the courses need significant support to get them up to starter speed anyway.

Provide them with health and safety induction and basic plumbing 101 – working at height and confined space training, tool identification and making flashing – and then give them to us, is what plumbing businesses are saying.

If a young person thinks they want to do an apprenticeship, they should have a good idea after three months of the basics. This way, if they do, they can be learning on the job and earning an apprentice salary much sooner – and encouraging others to take up apprenticeships. The shorter pre-trade training could also be included in school programmes, with day release.

Rebooting Reboot

Now we come to the crunch. Currently, plumbing businesses that take on apprentices get no funding – despite the additional time and effort needed to train them. We propose combining shorter pre-trades with a return to a redesigned version of the former Reboot scheme, which the government ran up until 2014.

Reboot involved a $2000 payment to the host to assist with training expenses and $2000 for the apprentice to fund tools or training. In our experience, apprentices – as would be expected from many young people – tended to spend their $2000 on stuff like PlayStations. We suggest providing the full amount to the host employer to help with training expenses and provision of tools.

For those using our Masterlink programme, Master Plumbers would then match that sum dollar for dollar – on top of the $12,000 the industry already shoulders to put each apprentice through block course training.

We’re not asking for more funding. We’re asking for some funding to be transferred from pre-trades programmes that aren’t meeting industry needs into one that gets young people who genuinely want careers in this sector learning more efficiently – and gives businesses resources to train them.

A rewarding profession

Overall, more also needs to be done to promote the profession as a career option. I’m not alone in saying this, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus. It does appear that too many school careers advisors focus on directing young people towards universities, with trades, particularly plumbing, somehow regarded as ‘second best’.

There’s a misconception that plumbing is all about dealing with human waste. The reality is technology has moved on. Pipe clearing is handled by sophisticated machinery, usually by specialist companies – and only about 1% of our members do this work. Modern plumbing is a highly skilled, in-demand and rewarding profession.

Ironically, we’re getting graduates taking up apprenticeships having completed degrees and finding they don’t equip them for a satisfactory career. Most of our Masterlink apprentices aren’t school-leavers; the average age is 23.

Through a plumbing apprenticeship they are setting themselves up for a career where there is huge demand for their skills, where they can earn a good salary, and where there are very good opportunities to be their own boss. That’s the scenario careers advisors should be putting in front of our young people.

Greg Wallace is the CEO of Master Plumbers,
Gasfitters and Drainlayers NZ


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