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Monday, April 27, 2009

How To Fix The Apprenticeship System

I have been banging on about this for years.

National has woken up to the huge, wasteful scam that is labour's "Modern Apprenticeship" scheme.

From Stuff

A $250 million Government job scheme is in line for a shake-up after a report showing that fewer than one in 10 agriculture, forestry and fishing apprentices completes training within five years.

Education Minister Anne Tolley is unhappy with the findings of a Ministry of Education report, Modern Apprentices Completion Analysis, and is seeking advice on the scheme’s future. The report reveals just one-third of all modern apprentices complete their training within five years.

As someone who has trained apprentices and served on an ad hoc group trying futilely to reform a totally screwed system, I can tell Ann Tolley exactly what the main problem is.


Instead of learning a trade, apprentices are forced to waste time and energy on meaningless, farcical and dishonest box ticking. Great for the training bureacrats, crap for the apprentice and the employer.

Below are some extracts from a speech I gave to ACT's 2004 annual Conference in Christchurch. Unfortunately little has improved since that time.

Here is my simplified 5 point plan for fixing the very very broke apprenticeship system.

Abolish Unit Standards

We must abolish the unit standards system that is probably the main disincentive to employing apprentices. The unit standards system attempts to train by dividing trades into numerous physical skills that must be mastered. This produces apprentices who are basically trained monkeys. They can do a series of tasks on command but may not necessarily understand why they are doing them.

Learning should be an organic process. Principles should be learned, and then applied in practical reality to produce understanding. A good tradesman instils in his apprentice the principles of the trade; whether it is how yeast works in baking, how paint flows or how to bone out a cattle beast.

By understanding basic principles, the apprentice can apply their skills to varied situations. They can learn to integrate skills, to problem solve and become real masters of their art. Unit standards, is an extremely clumsy and primitive approach to learning. All New Zealand’s universities have rejected it, and few, if any, other countries have adopted this inferior system.

Abolishing unit standards would immediately eliminate the need for assessors. Currently large firms must train an on site assessor to mark off their apprentices “progress”. Smaller firms must do this job themselves or pay an outside assessor $40 or more an hour to do it for them. Trained teachers are getting bogged down with unit standards in our high schools.

How is a one-man band paperhanger meant to cope? Small wonder that very few small companies now employ apprentices.

Broaden the System

We should extend apprenticeships and cadetships back into areas like primary teaching, journalism, nursing, and new areas like computing, retail and tourism. Even some professions such as the law, surveying and accountancy should return to training at least some of their staff through apprenticeships.

In Germany, young people can and do apprenticeships in almost any area. The mighty German economic machine exports skilled tradespeople and technicians, and has very low youth unemployment. Throughout Western Europe, it is the norm for non-university-bound teenagers to start their working life in an apprenticeship. Why shouldn’t we have the bulk of our school leavers in apprenticeships?

Start Them Early

We should lower the school leaving age, especially for those starting an apprenticeship. Once a teenager could leave school at 15, start an apprenticeship and be qualified at 19. Now most will leave school at 16 or 17, do a year at polytech on a pre-apprenticeship course (with a student loan), and then, if they’re lucky, start their apprenticeship.

People in this situation have commitments and want an adult wage. They don’t want to start at the bottom and are often less teachable. Pre-apprenticeship courses are no substitute for the real thing and are often actually counter productive.

Many employers complain that many of these trainees think they are above the simple tasks that real apprentices are required to learn. Life has its hierarchies and by starting at the very bottom of the ladder, apprentices tend to learn them very well. Apprenticeships should be geared as much as possible to start in the mid teens.

Reduce Government Involvement

We should reduce government involvement in apprenticeship training as much as possible. Each industry should run its own training to its own standards. The 2002 Budget committed an extra $41 million to “Modern Apprenticeships” over the next four years.

Last week, the Government announced that it would pump in $9 million to produce an extra 1,000 apprentices - that’s $9,000 per apprentice. Why pay to do what people will do for free if left alone? Apprenticeships are a bit like marriages, only they last longer. Does the Government have to pay people to get married?

The beauty of apprenticeship is that it is (or should be) self-funding. A properly run apprenticeship system should cost the taxpayer virtually zero. In fact, there should be a net gain as apprentices each pay a small amount of tax rather than taking out a student loan.

Industry should be awarding its own qualifications, so NZQA involvement could be axed and even the small polytech input could be privatised. Governments love to bureaucratise and complicate things.

A recent Human Rights Commission document on the modern apprenticeship scheme proposed that taxpayer-funded apprentice co-ordinators should take over the role of apprenticeship recruitment from employers. Further, it proposed that these co-ordinators be set recruitment quotas based on race, sex and disability. Even worse it wants co-ordinators to be paid bonuses for recruiting from the appropriate minorities.

Do you pay taxes so that that your car can be fixed by a Tongan lesbian with a gammy leg? Labour’s modern apprenticeship scheme is an expensive, politically correct bureaucratised scam. Don’t be fooled by it. Industry likes to simplify. The cheaper and simpler we can make apprenticeships, the more employers will embrace them. Get the government out of the way and employers will quickly rediscover the benefits of training apprentices.

Utilise the Military

We should expand the one area where government should play a role in apprentice training –the military. The army, navy and air force used to train hundreds of diesel mechanics, radio technicians, aircraft engineers, carpenters, chefs and sign writers. Some industries, such as aircraft maintenance, were built largely on ex-military staff.

The forces have the infrastructure and the skill base to turn out highly skilled people, and we’re paying for it through our taxes anyway. In the late ‘80s the Government abolished the army cadet scheme and with it most of the army’s apprenticeship programme.

Today the army employs approximately 10 apprentices a year. The situation isn’t much better in the navy or what used to be our air force.

The coming ACT/National Government should immediately implement an extensive system of military apprenticeships. This would help both the military and future civilian employers. It’d also very inexpensively increase the pool of military-trained people for any future defence emergencies. Some funding for this could come from part of the education vote that remains unspent each year. The rest could come from an unused student loan budget.

Read the full speech here.

I'm proud of it. It was very well received. Hopefully it will help restore what was once a very fine system to its former glory.


Anonymous longmemory said...

I heartily agree Mr Loudon. This synopsis is accurate and fits well with my own work/business/training experiences.
The social capital created by a robust apprenticeship system should not be underestimated- I remember how important those links were for myself and other young fellas I knew- many of whom have continued to provide opportunities for youngsters up to this day. Apprenticeships provide opportunities for social mobility & small business growth. NZ would be much the better for improvements in the current muddled system.
Charles Dickens would be disgusted at the lack of 'industry & thrift' the NZQA set-up allows!

10:33 PM  
Blogger Trevor Loudon said...

Thanks for that longmemory.

Isn't it a shame that the NZ tradesmen that were once the envy of the world have now almost gone the way of the moa.

We have only a few years left to turn things around before that huge skill base is gone for good.

12:23 AM  
Blogger peter.w said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree wholeheartly.

Our company has restarted a cadetship scheme (very similar to the old Ministry of Works cadetship schemes).

There could be a role in this for the Unions.

But are they interested?


3:05 PM  
Anonymous Builder Jack said...

Skilled tradesmen are harder to find than feathers on a frog. It is tiime to stop the rott of such a skill base and preserve it. One of the best ways to bring back skilled builders and tradesmen is to introduce a full and healthy apprenticeship scheme into schools. There are highly skilled tradesmen at

3:37 AM  
Anonymous Tradesmen Tom said...

Lets allow our younger generations to at least be presented with the opportuinity to go into a skilled tradesmen programme if they desire. Soon there will be none left and then traders from abroard will have to fill the voids!

4:28 AM  

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