Australia is seeing a worrying decline in the number of school-leavers taking up a trade. As social attitudes lean towards an almost mandatory university education, there are concerns that we will soon be facing huge skills shortages in traditional trades such as construction. One Sunshine Coast organisation is tackling the issue by introducing children as young as 10 to building—and power tools!

Apprenticeships in Australia

Worryingly, Australia’s apprentices make up a measly 3% of the total workforce, and have dropped a staggering 45% since 2012. We are experiencing a number of skills shortages in the nation at the moment, and apprenticeships make up more than their fair share in the statistics. For those who do take up an apprenticeship, the completion rate is incredibly low—at only 48%.

The areas of most concern, which are listed as Australian skills shortages include:

  • bricklayer and stonemason;
  • cabinetmaker;
  • carpenter and joiner;
  • fibrous plasterer;
  • glazier;
  • painting trade worker;
  • plumber;
  • roof tiler;
  • solid plasterer;
  • wall and floor tiler.

There are a few theories making the rounds about the lack of enthusiasm for apprenticeships, but suffice it to say that the low wages and complexity in legislation are two major factors. Furthermore, the steady move away from ‘traditional’ jobs and into those which lend themselves to the technological age is a contributing influence.

Tweens and drop saws, what could go wrong?

Getting pre-teens involved with and interested in the dying art of ‘making things’ just might be the most ingenious step towards solving the apprentice shortage that we’ve seen in years. As kids these days spend increasing amounts of time in front of various screens and involved in online worlds of social networking, gaming and cat videos, their innate sense of tactile, manual ability diminishes. The project ‘A Village Called…’ aims to marry children and tools, with a view to impart skills and knowledge which kids wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

Taking place during The Planting Festival at Woodfordia, which is home to the Woodford Folk Festival, the project is a new addition to a festival which began some 23 years ago. The project was designed to create an activity for kids who are either too old for the young children’s activities, or too young for the adolescent programs. Targeted at 10 to 15-year-olds, the ‘A Village Called…’ program allows children to develop practical skills such as building, sewing, and other social and environmental development-related activities, while being given a creative outlet.

Young would-be builders were given a ‘village licence’ to operate a hammer, saw and drill and then move up to using circular and drop saws—albeit, under supervision. These skills were then put to good use, building cubbyhouses and forts for their own village, which would later be named ‘Kidfordia’.

Despite our tendency towards coddling our children, and our society’s over-litigiousness, there are those who believe we’re doing more harm than good with our protective parenting approach in Australia. The children involved in the village project are at the perfect age to learn these kinds of skills and enjoy them.

“The age of 10 is the perfect time for this type of activity. From 10 years on children have this explosion of fine and gross motor skills development. A hundred years ago boys would be indentured to a trade by the time they were 14. They are perfectly capable.” Dr Rachel Sharman, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the Sunshine Coast

Dr Sharman reports that these kinds of activities are beneficial for children’s cognitive and well as psychological development. Learning how to problem-solve, to plan and to apply their mathematical skills to things such as measuring, children develop a sense of autonomy and self-confidence which will assist them throughout their lives.

apprentice builders shortage

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Move over, Bob the Builder

So, will these keen young builders go on to be the newest generation of tradies in another five to ten years?  It’s hard to say, of course. But it does seem as though giving children an understanding of building, and an interest in using tools to create things for themselves, is a clever strategy.

The consequences, if we fail to attract young people to trades and apprenticeships are hard to overstate. A lack of skilled workers pushes up the price of trades, and will ultimately put even more pressure on rising house prices and on other sectors that rely on tradespeople. While a skills shortage does generally result in wage rises, this again places pressure on the sectors involved. Bringing in foreign skilled workers is a solution already being used by the Australian government, however many areas still fall short. Encouraging more people to take up apprenticeships is no easy task, however Richard Hayes, director of the Manufacturing, Engineering and Electrotechnology Faculty of TAFE NSW believes that negative attitudes to trades are misplaced.

“The perception is that every parent wants their child coming through high school to go on and get a degree and be successful. But I think success can be measured in different ways and does not always have to be measured through a degree. More and more, we are seeing that young people coming into trades are going on to successful careers. That doesn’t have to be just banging nails in, they go on to management of building companies and contractors, and will manage large organisations and lead large teams of people. That can be very rewarding for them personally, but also financially as well.”

Other industry commentators believe the issue lies in the lack of apprenticeships on offer, and on the lack of completion of those which are started. Whatever the issue, it’s clear Australia is struggling to come up with a viable solution to the problem. While small in scale, the village project may just be a small step towards bucking this trend.

Builders of the Future: The Kids Taking on the Trade
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Builders of the Future: The Kids Taking on the Trade
One Sunshine Coast organisation is tackling the skills shortage by introducing children as young as 10 to building—and power tools!
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