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Stereotypes, myths and Bob the Builder

  • Renee Davies

Unitec's Dean of Engineering, Construction and Infrastructure Renee Davis on tradie stereotypes.

When we ask our children what they want to be when they grow up, the responses can be funny, charming and illuminating. But most youngsters haven’t really connected with the plethora of options available to them so will likely give you an answer based on what they are currently in love with blended with well worn stereotypes. Quite quickly, as we get older, the ‘what we love’ part of this equation diminishes but the stereotype component strengthens. 

Our perceptions of career routes, together with our parents’ and our teachers’ perceptions and societal expectations can overwhelm our own passions. One career path that attracts a lot of outdated perceptions is the trades and construction sector.  Many of us loved the creativity and sense of achievement of fixing, dismantling and constructing things (not necessarily in that order) as youngsters,  but those interests seldom come to the forefront when we had to sign up for a career.

Not surprising then that a recent poll in the UK found that 67% of the public would never consider a career in the construction industry and 41% didn’t think a career in this sector required higher education1 .  The children’s animated cartoon, Bob the Builder, clearly hasn’t been doing perceptions of a career in the trades many favours.

But Bob the Builder’s sunny outlook on life does convey an element of truth.   A vocation in a broad range of construction industry options, whether at the the design end (architects, CAD technicians, engineers or landscape architects), the implementation aspect  (plumbing and gasfitting, carpentry, electrical trades) or the construction management end (project managers and quantity surveyors) can deliver financially rewarding and satisfying career options.

In my role as Dean of Construction, Infrastructure and Engineering at Unitec, one of the sixteen institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITP) in New Zealand, I am acutely aware of a lingering perception that you only study trades when you don’t have any other options.  But this is by no means a global perception. Germany, for example, has a dual education system that fast tracks students into employment and productive jobs sooner by simultaneously combining apprenticeships in a company with skills-based training at a vocational school.  Germany doesn’t stigmitise “tradies” in the same way as New Zealand and the UK and vocational pathways are seen as the ‘best’ options for careers at the leading edge of manufacturing and construction.

Although the current high demand for tradespeople in our economy probably means more people than ever have their builder on speed dial, there’s still no sure-fire way to strike fear into the heart of a parent than for their child to say they want to go to polytech and focus on a vocational trade.  We need tradies in New Zealand to build the houses we’re so short of, but just not our child training to be that tradie.

So, what happens if you do decide to go to an ITP and pick up a learning option in the construction industry;  what are your real prospects?

Earning power

It’s now fairly easy to obtain information about the earning potential of a specific qualification.  Tertiary educators in New Zealand are required to publish key information for students for the qualifications they offer.  Since 2013, the Ministry of Education also publishes national-level data on graduate employment outcomes and earnings. 

Recent Government data on the top earning degrees in New Zealand has Unitec’s Bachelor of Consturction in the top 10 degrees in terms of earning capacity with a median salary of $86,000 per annum five years out of university.

So, if you can take the guess work out of predicting whether your career choice will make you employable and fund your lifestyle ambitions, while at the same time ignoring any unhelpful sterotyping, you’re left with one real question: what do you really want to study?

The value of what you love

And this gets me back to passion.  Irrespective of data that shows that we shift careers between four to seven times in our lifetime, it’s not much fun being stuck in a job you don’t like.

I chose to do a degree at a university at the design end as a landscape architect  but it never crossed my mind to consider the construction end – and yet in retrospect, that is where I should have started because that is the part of my job I love the most and have found the most rewarding. 

I see this on a daily basis with the 3,000+ students we have at Unitec who are studying in our Engineering and Construction and Infrastructure programmes and the personal satisfaction and reward they are getting out of making that choice.  So, how do we get that message out to those young people who wouldn’t traditionally consider a career in trades – and more importantly, females - who might not even consider that space because we don’t have a history of acknowledging and valuing trades as a career? Let’s start by showing some respect for our tradies that goes deeper than just a hope they’ll build our extension before the neighbour’s.

1 YouGov Poll, April 2016.

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