The Industry Training Federation (ITF) has recently submitted to the review of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF), supporting a review of the NZQF level descriptors.

I know. I have already used several terms that cause normal people to glaze over. But bear with me, because this matters. The issue is about the perception and status and sometimes stigma people can have about vocational options and skilled occupations, and how we define progression in education.

We want the current review to remap industry and trades qualifications on the NZQF, in terms of their actual skill levels.

Here is the official descriptor for Level 7, which is where the NZQF puts undergraduate degrees:

Knowledge: Specialised technical or theoretical knowledge with depth in one or more fields of work or study.

Skills: – Analyse, generate solutions to unfamiliar and sometimes complex problems.
– Select, adapt and apply a range of processes relevant to the field of work or study.

Application: Advanced generic skills and/or specialist knowledge and skills in a professional context or field of study.

Reading the descriptor above, I have no doubt that NZQF Level 7 describes many, many, critical members of our workforce that we would recognise as skilled, qualified, professional tradespeople. And, for that matter, many other specialised and qualified people we rely on to provide critical services, social services, and care.

But that’s just my opinion. What about the research? Recent Victoria University and WelTec research into the language of the trades found that the amount of vocabulary required for reading in the trades is as much as the amount of vocabulary needed to read university-level academic written texts. They’ve also looked at both English and Tongan languages – the finding is the same.

But that’s just the research. What about some first-hand experience? Last year my wife and I hired a builder and his recently qualified BCITO apprentice to reclad part of our house.

It’s our first family home. Like a lot of people these days, we were lucky to get a house at all, and it turns out there were one or two issues with the 1980s extension.

These could affect the structural integrity of our kids’ rooms and will likely involve a substantial hit to our savings account. That’s high-stakes stuff, so we did the right thing: got three quotes and met with our prospective contractors.

Long story short, they did an amazing job.

Our builders didn’t just know stuff, they knew how to do stuff. When you take cladding off a house, you find out lots of new issues, and so you diagnose, apply complex problem solving, and select appropriate techniques, using specialist skills, in a professional context.

Having lived through this, I wish to claim the following as ITF’s Chief Executive, but even more so as a mortgage holder: if our contractors did not have the things that NZQF Level 7 talks about, in terms of skills, knowledge, and application, we would not have hired them. We would not have trusted them with our walls. We would not have parted with that money.

So I find it weird and wrong that, typically, our qualified tradespeople currently carry a Level 4 qualification.

That says that after four or even five years of theoretical and technical training, they have climbed one level of the qualifications framework from a Level 3 NCEA school leaver.

That denotes that a fully qualified, licensed, professional tradesperson is operating one level below where a first-year university student is studying.

And it deems that someone like me, with a BA in English literature, has graduated three levels higher on the NZQF than the licensed building practitioners who sorted out my house.

Well, this BA is calling “BS”.

At this point, you would be completely right to state that this is a case of ‘apples and oranges’. One can’t possibly compare horizontal control joint remediation with the literary expression of religious doubt.

You would be right, but that is exactly my point. Back in the day, someone did just that, when they set up the NZQF. They said tradespeople apples are Level 4, and poetry appreciator oranges are Level 7.

This is not a ‘university versus trades’ thing. A BA in English is a fantastic qualification. It opened doors for me and thousands of others. But I don’t think those degrees would be diminished, or open fewer doors, if the NZQF – on society’s collective behalf – acknowledged that our fully qualified tradespeople have scaled different, but entirely equal, heights.

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