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“Big” Robbie Smith hopes the young boys he is currently training will be business owners one day.

Smith is part of the “Dad’s Army”, a group of experienced and retired tradesmen tackling the under-representation of Māori and Pasifika in the skilled trades.

“Young fellas, I know from my own experience, all I wanted to do was get out of school and get a job so I could buy my first pair of long pants,” Smith said.

“A lot of the brown brothers, and I am generalising here, but a lot do exactly that. They leave school just to get a job so they can buy booze and whatever. They have no qualifications and didn’t really do that well at school. They are smart, street smart but they left without any education.”

Smith works with Kiwi Can Do, a three-week work ready programme run in west Auckland.

Cadets are mentored, given basic construction experience and helped into apprenticeship programmes.

Tutors also take students to get their drivers license to help remove some of the barriers that might make it difficult for them to enter work.

“These kids leave school without a drivers license and they clock up thousands of dollars in fines. All we are doing is creating criminals. Here, we give them the hands on experience. We get them ready,” Smith said.

Michelle Perawiti, Kiwi Can Do scaffolding cadet, outside a scaffolded house

Michelle Perawiti is one of the cadets specialising in scaffolding with Kiwi Can Do.


“My family is all in the scaffolding in Aussie so, when I came back, it seemed like a good idea to give it a go,” she said.

After she finishes the three-week course, Perawiti hopes to get a job.

“It’s all in the technique. They have taught me how to pick up the poles and help me listen and learn,” she said.

Kiwi Can Do’s programme, with help from the Ministry of Social Development, is one attempt to address the gap in representation of Māori and Pasifika in the skilled sections of the construction industry.

The organisation is expanding into Wellington as the Government looks to overhaul the vocational education training system.

Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) chief executive Warwick Quinn said the organisation was keenly aware of the challenges facing Māori and Pasifika apprentices.

“At a general level, diversity is a problem in construction. We need to make sure Māori and Pasifika are represented on site and in skilled positions.”

Retaining apprentices across the board was also a challenge when low skilled positions were offering more money in the short-term than apprenticeships, Quinn said.

According to the Government’s careers website, first-year apprentices earn $27,456 a year before tax, while the median day labourer salary was $48,000.

The training organisation has been working with Ngāi Tahu researcher Eruera Tarena to address representation issues, and to gain a better understanding of the cultural forces that may influence apprenticeship programmes.

Ngāi Tahu researcher Eruera Tarena standing with a classroom of students in the background

Tarena said the need to address the inequalities in the workforce was a matter of urgency for New Zealand as a whole.

“Māori are over-represented in low-skill, low-security, low-pay, low-opportunity jobs. The s… jobs really,” he said.

“Those skill gaps at the moment result in pay gaps of $2.6 billion a year. The economic cost is just forecast to grow as our Māori population grows.”

Tarena said actual Māori engagement with apprenticeships wasn’t too bad, however Māori completion was “horrific”, with around 50 per cent dropping out before finishing.

“We have a system that doesn’t deliver good outcomes for Māori, so how does that journey get redesigned?,” he said.

“A lot of people prefer to blame Māori but there are systematic and structural drivers. There is a culture within construction workplaces where apprentices are a liability.”

During economic downturns, apprentices were treated like a buffer zone and are the first to go, he said.

“There are also quite significant pay pressures on young Māori. They will often exit out of an apprenticeship for an extra dollar or two an hour because of their family situation, when they have mouths to feed or whanau to look after, it is definitely a struggle,” Tarena said.

The hands-on, mentor approach of programmes like Kiwi Can Do and others helped the completion rates, he said.

“We know the fastest route for young Māori to a high-earning job is through an engineering apprenticeship. So how do we get more Māori in and how do we create a better journey that delivers better results?”