It’s a well-established fact that tradies get the ladies, but do they get the same long-term economic benefit that a university degree supposedly gives you? Craccum investigates.
It’s been the topic of many Facebook debates over the years whether tradies are better off than university students by working in high-demand industries and earning money soon after leaving school. In 2018, Auckland consultancy Scarlatti found that before the age of 30, many tradies made more on average than university graduates. On the other side of the coin, they found that past the age of 30, the university graduates began to earn more, supporting the theory that getting a degree is a long-term investment in your money-making capacity.
Right now, record numbers of people are signing up for apprenticeships. As of December last year, 16,000 people were training for a trade. The numbers of women and older people joining the trades has also increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, university enrolments are also increasing. Figures from the Tertiary Education Commission show a 17.6% increase in enrolments into both tertiary education and vocational study between December 2019 and December 2020. At the University of Auckland, Domestic EFTS (Equivalent Full-Time Students) have grown 4.6% from 2020, as of the 12th of March.
The increase in tradies in training is a good sign for key industries. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that there is a severe shortage of skilled trade workers, and the problem is likely to worsen without enough people getting into training. Immigation New Zealand currently considers there to be a long-term shortage in the construction and trades areas. These shortages have real and serious implications for all of Aotearoa — we are currently in the midst of a housing crisis, and some commentators have argued that the shortage of skilled trade workers was a factor in the failure of the Kiwibuild policy. When people say tradies are the backbone of society, they really aren’t joking.
Reforms by the current Labour government have meant that many apprenticeships have become free for groups beyond school leavers, with the increase in on-school leavers entering apprenticeships suggesting that these changes have made pathways into trades more accessible. Last September, the government announced targeted funding for trades and apprenticeships, and at the same time announced it would abandon extending the fees-free university policy past the first year. Ultimately, it’s looking like a good time to get into a trade apprenticeship.
Craccum chatted to a bunch of tradies about how they chose their career path, and found out that while money is a big drawcard, there are many more benefits to doing a trade that aren’t economic. Thomas, a building apprentice, told Craccum he decided to leave his study in environmental planning to start his apprenticeship. “I decided to drop out as it wasn’t as interesting as I thought [it would be] and I didn’t really enjoy it,” he says. “I would recommend [building] if being in a classroom isn’t for you. It keeps you physically fit and after work you can just relax, and not have to worry about assignments or anything.”
James, a builder, says that he finds it rewarding to see a piece of land turn into a house for a lifetime. “School wasn’t for me. Too many people coming and going, and no one [was] really helping me,” says James. “I’m [now] in a crew of eight. The foreman and the rest of the gang are super helpful, [and] the boss is so chill too, for someone with the stress of the job.
Sebastian, a plumber and drainlayer, highlighted economic opportunities as a key benefit of the job. He chose to enter the trade “because it seemed like there was good income potential, and [I] get to work in a different area every day.” He didn’t consider university study due to the lack of guaranteed job opportunities after finishing study.
Some who chose to complete tertiary study also end up in the trades. Amy previously studied for two years and landed a job in animation. She has now changed paths and is working as a labourer .“I feel like I was cheated over with pay and the amount of work I did, including the years of study I put towards it,” she says. Like Sebastian, she enjoys the high pay rate she receives for her work.
Jarrad, who has completed undergraduate study, is currently having a gap year to earn money and is working in road construction. “There’s just so much infrastructure whether it be commercial, public works or private trades, Aotearoa is such a new developed country so there’s always work to be done in trades,” says Jarrad. He says that his work provides great opportunities to upskill and learn things it is not possible to learn in a classroom.
“It feels good to do some actual work. To quote one of my sociologist lecturers, ‘to not be alienated from my means of labour’, to be connected to my work, seeing the finished product and especially in road construction knowing that I’m actually helping with the Auckland infrastructure.”
All of the tradies Craccum spoke to said they would recommend school leavers looking into doing a trade over going to university, but many stressed that career choice should be based on what an individual is interested in and what type of working environment they’d enjoy.
While the verdict is still out about the income earning potential of trades as opposed to going through university study, it is clear that from the experience of the tradies we talked to that entering the industry is a good option for those who are looking for ample job opportunities, a hands-on working environment and work that makes a difference.