20 Jan 2021

'Call back in 2022': Shortage of tradespeople compounds with building boom

9:58 am on 20 January 2021

People wanting a specific builder or a refurbishment to their home are being told they may have to wait one to two years due to a lack of skilled tradies.

Christchurch Construction.

New Zealand Certified Builders chief executive Grant Florence says there's a great flow of new and eager tradies coming into the sector - but still a major shortage of skilled tradespeople. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The housing boom and an ageing work-force has been exacerbated by a lack of international labour due to border closures.

Last month the Building and Construction Industry said the number of apprentices was at an all time high - 16,000 people are currently training for one of the trades.

New Zealand Certified Builders chief executive Grant Florence said there was a great flow of new and eager tradies coming into the sector - but still a major shortage of skilled tradespeople.

"There's been a shortage of skilled tradespeople for quiet some time but it's getting worse with time," Florence said.

"Obviously the housing boom isn't helping, building consents are at record highs and previously we have relied on migrant workers to fill gaps where needed so now that they're not here the issue has got worse."

The government was doing as much as it could - but it was facing just a double whammy because the residential sector had continued to grow against all predictions, Florence said.

"Unfortunately home-owners are having to wait a lot longer - in some cases I've heard of people waiting 12 months to start a build so they can have their desired builder."

The skilled worker shortage could be attributed to the 2008 global financial crisis, he said.

"People stopped taking apprentices and that sort of flowed through over the last few years so now we have ended up with a busy period and not enough labour."

Last year the government unveiled a $380 million subsidy for employers training apprentices.

Florence said it should plug the skilled worker gap in the future.

'Call back in 2022'

Master Electricians chief executive Bernie McLaughlin said the scheme should be made permanent.

"There's two ways we can fill the gap of skilled trades people which is training them ourselves or by bringing in skilled migrant workers, and now its become obvious we haven't been training enough people to fill the gap internally," McLaughlin said.

"The silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic is that the government has had it's hand forced to subsidise employers to train and we've had a massive upsurge in people taking up apprenticeships."

It had been indicated that the scheme was only for a short amount of time, he said.

"It would be extremely short-sighted for the government to remove the subsidy - if anything they should double the subsidy given to employers."

For now demand was out stripping supply, he said.

"Recently I've heard of someone trying to get a refurbishment done on their home and they were told to call back in 2022 - there's just not enough people out there to do the work.

"Almost all of the major companies are advertising jobs, so for New Zealand electricians overseas looking to come home they are almost certain to walk into a job straight away."

Train people 'each and every year'

Hutt Gas and Plumbing general manager Colleen Upton said she could advertise for skilled plumbers for months without any suitable applicants.

"It takes five years to do an apprenticeship and we've had the boom-bust cycle in the construction industry for so long, so when there's a bust businesses don't take on apprentices because they can't afford to," Upton said.

"It is just a domino affect when you need skilled workers there are none there because we weren't training them when it was quiet."

The only solution was to continue training people each and every year, she said.

"We have an ageing population of tradespeople who are retiring. It's a tough, physical job so it's not often you meet a 70-year-old plumber.

"The apprenticeship scheme is amazing - we have nine apprentices at the moment and we have a strong focus on training our own supply because, like I said, when you advertise there's just no one around."

The industry as a whole needed to take more responsibility and train more apprentices, she said.

"It's not a short fix for tomorrow but it is a long-term fix."

Minister for building and construction Poto Williams said the building sector was vital for New Zealand, which was why it had implemented its Construction Sector Accord - "a shared commitment between government and construction industry leaders to transform New Zealand's construction sector".

"Through its three-year Transformation Plan, the Accord is driving behaviour change to lift overall performance and achieve a safer, better skilled and more productive industry and to share good practice across the sector...

"The success of the Transformation Plan will be measured against the four accord goals of increasing productivity, raising capability, increasing resilience and restoring confidence, pride and reputation."

Asked about the future of government-supported apprenticeships, Williams restated information previously released:

"As part of Budget 2020, we announced a $1.6 billion package a Trade and Apprenticeship Training Package, including $320 million targeted investment support for free trades training in critical industries (including building and construction), [and a] $412 million support for employers to retain and keep training existing apprentices.

"The apprenticeship boost scheme provides businesses with up to $16,000 to support the cost of an apprentice for their first two years."