Friday, 14 July 2006

Where did all the apprentices go?

The sacking of the Plumbers, Gasfittters and Drainlayers yesterday brought with it the news that only 11 percent of the students who passed their National Certificate in Politically Correct Plumbing managed to pass a real examination set by the Board. No wonder Michael Cullen sacked them: how dare they expose the substandard training that trainees receive in their 'Modern Apprenticeships.' How dare these reactionaries hurt the feelings of the poor trainees.

How dare they give the media the opportunity to highlight once again that the number of new entrants to 'Modern Apprenticeships' is falling, and the standard of training they receive is at an all-time low.

Where did it all go wrong for New Zealand's apprenticeship system? That's a question that's been bugging me for a few years.

When I came back to New Zealand in 1995 after a few years away, one of the things that slowly dawned on me was that apprentices had virtually disappeared from the building industry. When I left in 1990, apprentices were everywhere -- almost every builder had one or two, even in the downturn that had just begun as I left -- but come 1995 they were about as hard to find as it was to find an honest lawyer.

What had happened?

Eleven years later I get an answer: Trevor Loudon suggests it was Lockwood Smith's doing.
Dr. Smith, who promised to rein in the education bureaucrats, was instead seduced by them. The illegitimate offspring of that ill starred union became known as “seamless education.

Rather than complete a 3 to 5 year apprenticeship, people could instead train over an indefinite period of time, accumulating “unit standards” which would lead to more flexible qualifications and “prove” competence over a range of areas.
Ah, so apprenticeships were killed by our old friend NCEA. Who'd have thunk it. What we have today are not apprentices; instead they're students who occasionally get their hands dirty --- there is a difference you see, between industry-based aprentices and Tech-based trainees.

Let me explain, and give a bit of my own history. Like Trevor, I never did an apprenticeship either. Instead, a very benevolent builder and developer took me on as a carpenter while I studied architecture largely part-time at Uni (something that was very unpopular at the Uni by the way), and to my mind the result was similar to an apprenticeship, and it was as close to the apprenticeship that I was after as I could manage. To that benevolent builder I am still enormously grateful.

Working as I did, I and the other genuine apprentices received about as good a building education as you could get. Apprentices were based on site, working every day from 7:30-5, with only occasional visits to Tech for Block Courses or to Night School for supplementary classes. Apprentices saw themselves as workers -- albeit badly paid workers -- but working was their focus, time-keeping was important, and the training at the Technical Institute they unerstood to be backing up what they needed to know in order to do their day job properly. On site they learned a work ethic, and they discovered that learning had a point to it: it made you better at your work, and in your chosen trade. It made them Tradesmen.

In addition, because they were part of the crew, every apprentice was taken under their wing by one or two knowledgable older chaps who were only too happy to show 'their' youngster all the tricks of the trade that they knew -- and their youngsters were generally only too happy to soak up as much as they could by showing all the respect that these old hands deserved. This education was probably at least as valuable again as what an apprentice learned in their Block Courses, but it was nothing that could ever be prescribed in any curriculum or measured by any Unit Standard: it happened only because these apprentices had themselves been able to earn the respect of the grizzled old hands. This training helped make them good Tradesmen.

In short, the apprentices of the eighties learned that work and a work ethic was important, that training was valuable, and that experience was utterly invaluable. Youngsters like this were of great value to any employer, which is perhaps why it was traditional for every builder, however small, to regularly have at least one apprentice working for them; and these apprentices emerged as confident, highly competent and knowledgable in their trade and all that their trade required. (A fact that many tertiary-trained 'professionals' might like to ponder.)

All this however is virtually the opposite for today's many fewer schoool-based trainees.

The school-based 'apprentice' training is modelled not on the apprenticeships of the past (from which most professional training could learn a thing or two) but instead on the model of university chalk-and-talk training. The school-based trainee sees himself not as a worker but as a student. The work ethic he learns is the work ethic of a student, with all that implies. Dirty hands are out. Early starts are out. Learning on the job is out. Learning is something that comes from a lecturer -- and as the saying goes: those who can, do; those who can't, lecture -- and then taken to job (if at all) as the new received wisdom. Grizzled old workers with real world experience are seen not as founts of wisdom worthy of respect but as reactionary bigots worthy only of contempt -- after all, who's the one with the newly received wisom, the shiny diploma, and the true understanding of the Treaty Principles?

In short, today's apprentice -- if you can find one -- is surly, lazy, unthinking, unresponsive, unable to realise how much he doesn't know (and unwilling to learn), and unable to realise which side his bread is buttered on. (I figure if I'm going to be labeled a reactionary bigot I might as well be one.) He works, if at all, only from the neck down. He emerges without real on-the-job skills, without real experience of his chosen trade, and as a result still unsure whether he's up to it at all, or whether it's really for him. No wonder his 'low self-esteem' needs nurturing.

And what employer in their right mind would want one of these on their job?

And I think Trevor's probably right: Lockwood Smith's capitulation to the education bureaucrats probably is the cause of what happened. What do you think?

LINK: Apprenticeship, the overlooked institution - part 1 - New Zeal (Trevor Loudon)
Sacked plumbers board strikes back over safety - Dominion Post

TAGS: Education, Politics-NZ


  1. Right on the money! I work in a business that does fairly technical stuff and our two apprentices are great guys, very much aware of how much they still have to learn and more than willing to listen. And full of good ideas of their own.
    There will NEVER be a good substitute for young apprentices working with experienced older people, on the job and subject to all the various disciplines that requires.
    I just feel sorry for all the young people who miss out on this kind of training, who "graduate" from tech courses full of self-esteem and almost empty of real work knowledge.

  2. hallelujah - that makes 3 of us on the right who think one of the more pig ignorant things done by national in the 90's was getting rid of apprentices. practical learning of the trades is everything.

    There is a long way to go back to genuine apprentices, if that is possible

  3. Worse yet...

    The Chalk & Talk method doesn't make experts out of students.
    Only time on the job does. Whatever that job is: Engineering, Mathematics, Science, Lawyering, Accounting, Business Management...

    The only way to integrate the knowledge you've picked up (assuming that the knowledge you gained at Uni was useful in the first place - and that isn't always a given), to make sure it makes sense in your head and that you can trust it - you've got to apply it to a real world situation.

    Only then can you truly work independently.

  4. The start of the phase-in of NCEA was in 2002. I don't think you can blame it for something that happened pre-1995.

  5. Graeme, I don't purport to be an expert on "where apprenticeships went," especially since I was away from NZ from 1990-95 when it seemed to happen, but I do know that when I returned unit standards were already being written, and courses re-jigged to meet them.

    It's true it was delayed for many years, but it was on the radar for many more.


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