The answer to NZ's labour shortages?

November 1, 2022

Before she left school, young Pasifika woman Sulia Pepa decided she didn't want an office job.

"My parents both worked in an office and, for a long time, I thought that's what I would do too," the 23-year-old Aucklander says. "But when I was in Year 13 the idea no longer seemed appealing and I started exploring other options."

Those other options led her to a two-year stint in carpentry before changing tack to an apprenticeship in refrigeration and air conditioning with maintenance company City Care.

Now two years into a four-year apprenticeship, Pepa says she loves the challenge the job offers: "It has taken me out of my comfort zone, but I like the work, problem solving and having to understand how machines work.

"I would definitely encourage other women and Pasifika people to go for it (a trades apprenticeship)," she says. "All my friends thought it was awesome I chose this career and I often get men saying how proud they are to see a woman in the trades. It makes me smile."

Pepa doesn't let the fact that she is the only woman in her team of five get in the way: "I'm okay with it and don't feel out of place; they are all very supportive and, in many ways, treat me like a daughter or younger sister."

Her story comes against a backdrop of continuing concern over New Zealand's labour shortage. This was again highlighted in the latest New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) quarterly survey of business opinion. It showed firms are finding it hard to recruit, especially in sectors facing acute capacity constraints stemming from a shortage of both workers and materials.

Competenz General Manager Employer and Learner Services Toni Christie says employers in manufacturing and engineering are experiencing significant skilled labour shortages – and the best thing they can do is invest in talented staff like Pepa to enable them to upskill.

The government's apprenticeship programme has resulted in 50,000 people getting jobs in the trades. Of these, 4000 - about eight per cent - are Pasifika, according to a recent Pacific Media Network (PMN) report. Māori make up 19 per cent and women 17 per cent.

Despite this success, the percentage of Pasifika in skilled jobs is, at 46 per cent, still lower than the 68 per cent for all workers according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) June 2021 labour market report.

Pepa, whose ethnicity is Tongan and Cook Islander, began working for City Care after going through a carpentry programme for Pasifika and Māori students when she left Alfriston College in 2017.

City Care uses a wide range of tradespeople including plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters and roofers. Pepa worked in several of these divisions before her operations manager asked if she wanted to try refrigeration and air conditioning.

Trialling it for a year, Pepa ultimately decided to take on the apprenticeship through the government's Targeted Training Apprenticeship Fund (TTAF). She says she has no regrets and hopes more Māori and Pasifika people will, like her, be attracted to the trades.

"People need to set a goal and see if taking up a trade could help them reach it," she says. "Think about where you'd like to be in the future. After I qualify I would love to be in a position where I don't need to work 40 hours a week and can use some of my time and skills maintaining and building places of worship for my Christian organisation in New Zealand and overseas.

"This is a good motivator for me and will help me stay on track and get it (her apprenticeship) done."

Pepa lives with her mother in Manurewa and most of her work with City Care is in the South Auckland area, carrying out maintenance on Auckland Council property, including regular checks on heating and cooling systems in the buildings.

Squarely in Pepa's corner is her Competenz training advisor, Bevan Paul: "He does an awesome job and is very encouraging," she says. "He comes (regularly) to check on how I'm going; I can also contact him if I get stuck with anything or have questions about my training."

Training advisors are a driving force behind apprentices and the relationship between them is an important one. Through quarterly progress visits, follow-ups and assessments, Paul ensures Pepa is well-equipped to succeed in her training plan and, ultimately, achieve her qualifications.

As well as identifying areas for her to upskill in, he focusses on her well-being at work and home. He emphasises the importance of his role in pastoral care - "pumping up their tyres" as he puts it - by supporting apprentices through their ups and downs to help them reach their goals.

As Paul says: "Sulia is a force to be reckoned with in a male-dominated trade. She's strong and driven - once she's into it, off she goes."

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