Trade or university degree? This debate has been hotly contested for years as graduates are being squeezed out of university with debt alongside degrees, while tradies are finally being given more respect – and pay – for their skills.

Competenz, an industry training organisation covering
36 different sector’s including forestry, engineering and transport, places many trade apprenticeships each year and says the opportunities are growing.

“We have significant skills shortages across a number of industries, which is creating fantastic career opportunities for young people,” says Competenz CEO Fiona Kingsford. “For example, our data is telling us there will be another 5.5k jobs in mechanical engineering between now and 2022.”

Other industries with high employment opportunities include refrigeration and air-conditioning, heating and ventilating, and fire protection, thanks to an infrastructure boom, particularly in Auckland. There’s also growth in the print and sign-making industries, as well as forestry.

“Apprenticeships are a cost-effective way to set yourself up for a trade career and, with no student debt, we’re seeing the earning potential on retirement to be on a par with that of a university graduate,” says Kingsford.

She says having a trade can be a way into an industry, but apprentices don’t always have to stay ‘on the tools’ and could move into team leadership positions or project management further down the track.

“There’s even the option to start your own business and be the boss – doing a trade apprenticeship is the start, not the end point,” says Kingsford.

How do you choose a trade?

Significant changes are also happening in automation and technology, revolutionising trade industries and potentially placing less of an emphasis on hard manual labour and more on problem solving and critical reasoning skills.

“There’s the option of talking to careers teachers at high school and looking through training industry case studies of real-life apprenticeships,” says Kingsford, “as well as day-long programmes in a trade, which are run through high schools and provide a taste of what it would be like in that role.”

Gotatrade.co.nz has an interactive tool to help narrow the list of trades a person might like best, as well as 2018 profile videos of people who are currently working in trade industries.

One of these is Dylan Samson, who became a water reticulation technician at 19 years old after a ‘leap of faith’ job application, having no prior knowledge about the industry. The move has worked out well and he’s now 23 and running a crew, having earned while he learnt, which he says allowed him to pay for a social life and also save enough money to buy his first home.

He likes being able to work outside, and to have the option to work anywhere in the world with the skills he’s developed in the trade.

Another, Paris Rose Ternent-James, 22, took up carpentry as an apprentice builder after wanting a rewarding and physical job. She likes the team aspect of the role and ‘getting stuck in together’, having turned away from the family profession of three generations of hairdressers.

Training schemes

There are also group training schemes to consider, such as through Apprentice Training NZ (atnz.org.au), with current vacancies in the light automotive, refrigeration and air-conditioning, and steel manufacturing industries.

There’s a wealth of advice from Careers New Zealand for parents of teens who are unsure where to go in their careers,  such as opening up career discussions early, being good role models, showing them their own CVs and talking about their own career paths – whether those are good experiences to follow or useful for sharing some ‘what-not-to-do’ choices along the way.

Parents supporting their teens’ dreams is also highly recommended, as well as encouraging what they are good at and providing a wide range of experiences geared towards their favourite subjects.

While the debate as to whether it’s better to choose university or a trade will continue to be hard-fought, there’s no argument that if you are following your passion you’re more likely to work hard, be successful and enjoy your life.

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