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Industry destruction behind leaky building issue

ASTE Te Hau Takitini o Aotearoa

The failures of training that have been identified in relation to leaky buildings are linked to the near destruction of the building industry’s apprenticeship system, the union that represents polytechnic tutors says.

Jill Ovens, National President of the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education, says during the 1990s, builders were not prepared to release apprentices for polytechnic block courses because they did not want to lose “productivity”.

“In some cases, young people continued to attend such courses, but on their own time (ie they weren’t paid to do so as in the past). In many cases, they just stopped coming,” she says.

In response to this, the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) brought in training packages to be delivered on site by foremen who were to attest that "trainees" (they were no longer called "apprentices") had met the standards. Some builders objected and there was a split in the building industry.

The BCITO is now under different leadership, but the fundamental problems remain, as far as ASTE members are concerned.

“The new ‘policy speak’ in vocational education is all about ‘connectedness to industry’,” Ms Ovens says. “In saying this, the assumption is that polytechnics are divorced from industry. The only learning that has validity is ‘workplace learning’.”

She says that the old apprenticeship model that builders aged over 35 experienced, was a combination of on-job learning and off-job learning, where apprentices were exposed to a range of practices and skills, as well as theory.

“Thus, apprentices working for shonky developers or contractors would be aware that what they were doing was dodgy because they were getting another perspective from their off-job training in the local polytechnic.”

Since the 1990s, this has happened less and less often, Ms Ovens says.

“Young people working in the building sites of Auckland and other centres have too often received no training whatsoever. I know, because all three of my sons and many of their mates have worked on these sites.

“I also know, because my union has helped far too many building tutors go through redundancies caused by insufficient numbers of apprentices or trainees coming through from the building industry.”

She says the much hailed "Modern Apprenticeship" system has increased the number of apprentices in the building industry, but falls far short of what is needed. Also, in the case of the building industry, it has not meant a commitment to the model of on-job training complemented by off-job training in regional polytechnics.

ASTE is also concerned that trends such as contracting and de-unionisation of the building industry have not been highlighted in relation to “leaky building syndrome”.

“Unlike houses built in times past, modern developments are completely contracted out. All too often, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The responsibility for overseeing the job rests with the developer, but as we saw on TV the other night, the developers’ representative tried to absolve them of that responsibility.”

Ms Ovens says that sub-contractors do not usually take on apprentices or trainees, which has left a gap in opportunities for formal training of young people in the industry.

Another angle is the rate of unionisation, which is appallingly low in the building industry.

Ms Ovens says it was considered part of the trades culture to instill pride in workmanship in the next generation and union members played a major role in ensuring such pride was passed on.

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