Talented apprentices are like gold. Finding and training them is key to striking a balance between running a business and leading a healthy life. We spoke to two well-established tradespeople about how to identify good apprentices, and what it takes to keep them motivated.
Helen Paddon, the Chief Executive Officer of Tradettes Plumbing, says that she employs ‘attitude over skillset’. “If you have the right attitude we can teach you the right skills. You can be the best plumber in the world but if your attitude, morals and values don't match our company then you're not going to be the right fit for our team and our clients by the National Centre For Vocational Education Research (NCVER) from 2017 to 2024 it’s predicted there will be a total of 472,000 job openings for technicians and trades workers in Australia.
It’s an approach reiterated by Alan Taylor, an electrical consultant with Perth-based construction company West Coast Construction and Demolition. “I find if the person is excited and keen to learn, that's what I look for more. It's not really their skills because they can learn the skills quite quickly.”
Not just a job
Trades have traditionally been seen by many as a fall-back option for those who aren’t sure what they would like to do for a career. It’s an inaccurate view of the career possibilities available to dedicated tradespeople, and can mean that apprentices view their opportunities as ‘just a job’. However, this view doesn’t help anyone.
Taylor says “If you get somebody who's been pushed into it by their parents, then that generally just doesn't work. Or if they think it’s a job just to earn money, it won’t work out. We need the guys, and girls, to get excited about learning and getting a good skill.”
Apprentices need resilience to adapt to challenging situations. Paddon says that unless an apprentice is really engaged, they won’t be able to deal with stressful situations. “This isn't just a job, it’s a career. An apprentice will spend four years of their life learning and being challenged on a daily basis. Everyone has bad days when they just can’t figure out how to do something, but they have to be resilient enough to go, ‘Okay, I will have those days, but I can push forward.’ If somebody comes with the attitude of, ‘It's just a paycheck,’ they're not going to have the kind of resilience they need to get through the hard times.”
Suitability is clear from the start
An apprentice will show their potential from the first day. Taylor says “It's not a difficult thing to tell if they’re really motivated. You work with them for a day or two, and you can tell by the questions they're asking and how they react.”
Actions, as well as words, will show someone’s intent, adds Taylor. “I've had apprentices where we arrive at a property and I’ll go in to talk to the customer and by the time the work needs to start, they've got the cable out, the step ladders, whatever might be required. Or you get an apprentice where you go in and talk to the customer, and you come back, he's on Facebook. You can tell very quickly whether they're interested or not.”
Addiction to social media is rife amongst people aged under 30 years old, with just over a quarter of them checking their phones every 15 minutes. Not only does it make it difficult for apprentices to concentrate, but being distracted on a worksite becomes a significant health and safety issue.
Keeping apprentices motivated
Experienced tradespeople have a valuable role to play in helping apprentices grow. National schemes like the Electrical Group Training means that apprentices may be placed with a number of businesses over their four-year apprenticeships. “Unfortunately, in trades nowadays, apprentices are looked on as cheap labour,” says Taylor. “As an electrical contractor, we have to dig a lot of ditches to lay cables. Some tradies will always give those jobs to apprentices, but any apprentice who's doing that for months on end is going to become disillusioned and want to give it away. I’ve just got the one apprentice at the moment, but he goes everywhere with me. Sometimes we have to do some trenching, because it's part of the job, but then when we go to do fault finding, or finishing works, or something that's more exciting, then he comes in as well because he's got to learn. I think that’s an important part because just digging trenches can be soul destroying.”
Equal opportunities for men and women in trade
Until recently, the trade industry has been dominated by men. The emergence of businesses like Tradettes Plumbing, who say they provide ‘plumber’s knowledge with a woman’s touch’, is a sign that the times are changing. Paddon set up the Brisbane-based company to give more young women the opportunity to learn the trade she already specialises in. It’s about sustaining the industry rather than pitting men against women. Paddon says, “I've had a saturation of really brilliant female apprentices so I’ve personally had more exposure to them. But having females in trades is something that's only really been explored and encouraged in the last ten years so it's still quite new.”
Women can bring a new angle to trade services — finding ways to solve problems that would otherwise be fixed with physical strength, and aligning more closely with industry health and safety guidelines in the process. Most of all, an increasing number of women working in trade services bring a new energy and enthusiasm for the craft. While the majority of his apprentices are male, Taylor speaks highly of his experiences with female apprentices. “I've had a few female apprentices and they’ve been really good because it's more difficult for them. They’re keen and enthusiastic because they’re choosing a career as a tradie, whereas most of the young male apprentices are only there because their parents have told them they have to get either a trade or a qualification and they think being a tradie is an easy option.”
A career to support the life you want
The problem-solving, communication and practical skills that enthusiastic apprentices can learn on the job are valuable life skills that will ensure they can always find satisfying work. Rather than just a way to earn money, choosing a career in trade services is a pathway that can provide the financial security and fulfilment needed for a healthy lifestyle.