Skill Shortage – a serious industry problem

by Daan Olthuis, Sales & Marketing Manager, Tunnicliffe Timber Company Ltd

As timber suppliers to exterior timber joinery companies throughout New Zealand, we have seen a systemic pattern emerging in recent years, in particular during the last 18 months. Joiners are getting desperate to find skilled staff members. We can safely say that the problem has become rather serious as there are businesses turning work away when as a matter of fact they cannot afford to. Are we heading for a crisis?

According to CareersNZ, our governmental organisation that helps New Zealanders make informed learning and work decisions, “skill shortage” is a “catch-all” term to describe a range of situations in which an employer is finding difficulties finding a worker with the right skills. Skill shortages may differ in cause and nature:

  • Genuine skill shortage
  • When there are not enough job seekers who have the required skills.
  • Skill shortage caused by recruitment and retention difficulties
  • When there are enough job seekers with the required skills but they choose not to work because they are unhappy with pay rates and/or working conditions.
  • Labour shortage
  • When there are simply not enough workers available, skilled and unskilled. This happens when unemployment numbers are low.

In our particular industry situation our skill shortage is probably a combination of all of the above. The NZ economy is doing quite well at the moment and unemployment figures are relatively low. With less people on the labour market and more work to be done the pressure is on for employers having to compete for workers. It is not dissimilar from having to find work for the joinery shop and compete with other joiners to win customers.

A point of sobering reality is that it takes 4 to 5 years to train up a qualified timber joiner, which means that if we are having a problem right now it will take some time to fix. So we better get onto it quick. The next question is; are we doing that? The answer is the next point of sobering reality; probably not…

As business owners, employers, we have to take a good look at ourselves first. When there is a problem, all too soon we tend to find something to blame, an external influence, which is seemingly beyond our control. This mind-set can be a mistake, the difference between being a successful business or not.

When there is a problem more than often there are a number of reasons as to why something is going wrong. One of them is the change from our New Zealand government making changes to the apprentice system that was in place through the Ministry of Education up until 1992. Government subsidised workplace-based training, it was highly regulated and lacked flexibility. It was difficult for new industry to enter as the economy was changing. In short the responsibility of training shifted from the government to employers. ITO’s were formed, Industry Training Organisations funded by government.

The current training system for our industry is going through the BCITO covering the building sector in general. This training organisation is funded by government and took over from what we knew as JITTO in 2014. They provide assistance in establishing an apprenticeship, supplying learning material and carry out assessments.

Today’s system is based on the employer being the trigger to make training happen. If there is currently a skill shortage the main reason is that overall there has not been enough training happening, timber joinery employers involving and teaching young people.

What we can really improve on is changing our attitude towards training. In today’s environment we can no longer rely on government and industry to deliver trained employees. It needs to be done within our own work place, on an ongoing basis. More than ever you will have staff turnover, people move on, more frequent than in the past, the environment has changed.

We need to clean up our act with regard to the stigma of being “the apprentice”. There is no point in treating the youngster on the work floor as the lowest in the pecking order, to get him or her to sweep the floor, get lunches, and clean the toilets for the first 18 months. Get them on the real stuff from the start and make a genuine commitment. We should probably change our pitch to being a “trainee” rather than “apprentice”.

Finding young people. Times have changed. Our kids in school are having many more options today than in the past. We need to learn to see what is going through their minds and how our industry is being perceived. Feedback from joiners often is that they believe youngsters are no longer interested in taking up the tools in a factory environment. This may be true but why and what are we going to do about it. It is not until we manufacture everything with robots that we will not need them. Our youth is the future of New Zealand.

Yes, we live in an age where parents like to see their kids go to university. Universities have evolved from governmental financial black holes into commercial money making institutions. Arguably, a fair number of “bums on seats” courses have been created, without real jobs to get into and in the process setting up our kids with almost lifelong debts. We may be on a turning point soon, as parents are starting to see the consequences. All the more reason to get our act together soon.

As an individual company there are things you can do other than just keep advertising. Youngsters, future employees are at schools. The most likely candidates are having fun during the wood tech classes. Teachers with a heart in what they are doing see this, know this and love to make a link with the real world, helping the good kids getting ahead after school. This has been a successful avenue for Tunnicliffe’s on several occasions.

The gateway program is a good example of making sure young people are coming through the system. These youngsters are still at school and integrate into the work force on a part time basis.

There is very good work done by the BCITO however we need to realise that timber joinery is a relatively small part of the building industry and we may just not get enough coverage to make a difference.  We are operating very much in a niche market and therefore need to take more responsibility, as individual companies to reach out to the right candidates. 

As an industry sector, would there be a more active role to play for our Master Joiner Association? BCITO have conducted proper market research on the joinery market. They have programs to actively bring in candidates but still rely on employers and industry organisations to work with them to find new young timber joiners. It is time for our niche market industry to step up, as we have done recently with NZS 4211. We need to try to turn the tide…

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