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Apprenticeships and trade training

by Jeremy Baker

In the 19th century employers didn’t have to pay their apprentices, but they were supposed to feed and clothe them, and make sure they went to church. Conditions have changed for 21st-century apprentices, but the core of what they do – learn a trade – remains the same.

Apprenticeship until 1945

Colonial apprentices

New Zealand’s colonists brought with them the traditional British apprenticeship system. Apprentices, who were usually young men or boys, completed a specified period of training, often lasting several years, by working and learning on the job alongside a skilled tradesperson (known as a journeyman). This system was vital for supplying the skilled labour required to build and service the rapidly growing colony.

At first there were very few laws controlling how apprentices could be engaged and how they learned their trades. Under the Master and Apprentice Act 1865 an employer was simply expected to provide ‘sufficient and suitable’ food, clothing and bedding, and to ensure that the apprentice attend church and pay attention to his morals. This lack of formal control led to concerns that some businesses were apprenticing children as young as 12, using them as unskilled labour and sometimes paying them nothing while they learned their trade. They could then be fired as soon as they completed the term of their apprenticeship, so their employer avoided paying them the wage of a skilled worker.

The social laboratory

In the 1890s New Zealand passed advanced industrial relations legislation, which earned it the title of the world’s ‘social laboratory’. This included reforms of the apprenticeship system. Because there were still few laws specifically controlling apprenticeships, apprentices’ conditions were negotiated as part of the awards (legally enforced minimum wages and conditions) of individual industries, such as printing or tailoring. Apprenticeship conditions became a significant bargaining element in award negotiations between unions and employers. The unions argued strongly for adequate training of apprentices, and for a maximum ratio of apprentices to skilled workers, such as one to three, in order to protect jobs.

Apprenticeship Act 1923

The introduction of electricity and motor cars in the early 20th century meant some trades such as saddle-making practically disappeared, while new ones emerged, such as electrical engineering. Most other trades changed dramatically, as new equipment was introduced and manufacturing processes moved from craft-based small industry towards mass production. To meet these changes apprentices needed increased training to nationally agreed standards.

Apprentice sweeper


Employers often preferred to restrict apprentices to routine work since this was cheaper than teaching them advanced trade skills. When the Apprenticeship Act 1923 required employers to let apprentices study during working hours, one employer objected strongly: ‘What is the duty of a boy when he goes into the shop? The first thing … that the boy has to do is to learn how to sweep out that shop … order and discipline are to the benefit of a boy.’1


The Apprenticeship Act 1923 set up voluntary local apprenticeship committees for each industry and controlled the wages, hours and conditions of apprentices, and the period of their apprenticeship (typically three to five years). At first the act applied only to male apprentices, but women were covered from 1926, when the first female hairdressing apprenticeships were recognised. The act also required apprentices to gain part of their training at technical schools, which later became polytechnics. Firms that employed a number of apprentices, such as those in the motor vehicle industry, contributed towards the cost of these technical schools.

Training in wartime

The outbreak of the Second World War forced New Zealand’s small manufacturing industry to adapt rapidly to making high-quality military equipment, and tested the ability of apprentices to learn new skills on unfamiliar machinery. More than 500 ships were built during the war, including some for US forces. One US officer said, ‘[T]he quality of the work performed by apprentice-trained artisans for the US Marine Corps in New Zealand has been … unequalled elsewhere in the world.’2

During wartime women entered the manufacturing workforce in large numbers, but employers and the government assumed that they would leave those jobs at the end of the war. Because of this, they were mostly restricted to simple tasks and gained very little trade training.

    • Apprenticeship question (New Zealand). Wellington: Government Printer, 1923, p. 17. Back
    • Quoted in War record. Wellington: Government Printer, 1946, p. 48. Back

The post-war years

In the years following the Second World War New Zealand had full employment and a booming economy. This was the peak period for apprenticeship in New Zealand. Skilled labour was scarce and, even though wages were high for unskilled work, there were benefits and social status associated with having a trade. A trade qualification was assumed to provide a job for the rest of the person’s life.

Apprenticeship Act 1948

The Apprenticeship Act 1948 replaced the voluntary and local committees set up by the 1923 act with national apprenticeship committees made up of industry and union representatives. Technical education became standard for most apprenticeships, with examinations set by the Trades Certification Board. Apprentices’ wages were set at a fixed proportion of a tradesman’s hourly rate, typically starting at 23% of that rate for the first 1,000 hours and rising steadily to 77% for the 10th 1,000 hours. Apprenticeships were measured in hours rather than years, with each 1,000 hours equalling six months’ training.

During the 1950s around 30% of all male school leavers expected to enter a skilled trade by completing an apprenticeship. Women apprentices remained very rare, except in traditionally female trades such as women’s hairdressing. There were very few Māori tradespeople, and from the late 1950s special hostels, a training centre and trade training schemes were set up to help Māori apprentices adapt to an increasingly urban lifestyle. However, in 1967 the proportion of Māori school leavers taking up apprenticeships was still only one-third of the national rate.

Apprenticeship Act 1983

From the late 1960s increased automation and the introduction of new industries such as aluminium smelting created major problems for workplace training. Skilled tradespeople were in short supply, yet the social status of workers in trades was dropping. Also, around one-third of apprentices did not complete their contracts. Unemployment was also starting to rise, especially among women, Māori, Pacific Islanders and unskilled workers.

The Apprenticeship Act 1983 revised the outdated apprenticeship system and extended it to a wider range of people, including more women trainees. However, its reforms were overtaken by the economic and political restructuring of New Zealand after 1984.

Decline of apprenticeships

From 1988 apprentice numbers began to decline dramatically. A career in the trades was no longer considered as desirable as it had once been, and a widespread attitude developed that school leavers needed a university degree to get a good job. During the 1980s and 1990s the manufacturing sector shrank and unemployment rose sharply. Large public institutions such as the Post Office, New Zealand Railways and the Government Printing Office, which had traditionally trained hundreds of young people each year, became profit-oriented state-owned enterprises, and training in the public-sector workforce almost disappeared. On an international scale the New Zealand workforce had relatively low skills, low productivity and a low level of formal training.

In spite of many efforts to increase the numbers of female, Māori and Pacific Island apprentices, young Pākehā men made up the great majority of trainees, and most were not trained to produce the high-quality, high-value products that the economy now required. Employers were reluctant to take on apprentices because they had to be contracted for the full term of their apprenticeship, regardless of changes in the workload. Employers also accused the state education system of having an academic bias and of neglecting subjects such as the sciences and engineering.

Apprentices become trainees

The Industry Training Act 1992 set up industry training organisations (ITOs) to take over apprenticeship training. The traditional apprenticeship contract was replaced by a training agreement between the trainee, the employer and the ITO.

ITOs, run by individual sectors of industry, set national standards for training, arranged the training and assured its quality. Traineeships were offered in new areas such as tourism and travel, social services, and sports, fitness and recreation. The government’s main role was to encourage industry to take up the new system, promote efficient forms of training and help fund the training process.

Under the ITO system, training standards were assessed on the basis of competency instead of time served. Trade and advanced trade certificates were replaced by unit standard-based national certificates, which formed part of the National Qualifications Framework, the basis of the nationwide education system. In 2008 ITOs had more than 180,000 trainees, a reversal of the long-term decline in apprenticeship numbers.

Modern Apprenticeships

The Modern Apprenticeships scheme was started in 2002 to respond to the low numbers of young people in training by increasing awareness and promoting workplace-based training. The scheme was aimed mainly at young people up to the age of 21, but was also available for some people wanting to start a new career. A national network of co-ordinators recruited and placed apprentices in workplaces, supported their training and mentored them to reduce the dropout rate.

Modern Apprenticeships were available in industries that traditionally had apprenticeships such as building and plumbing, but also in those that had not, such as the public sector, retail, forestry and road transport. There were almost 13,000 modern apprentices in 2008.

Trading up to a trade


In the early 2000s skilled trades recovered some of the status and appeal they held in the 1950s. It became increasingly common to find professionals from the IT or finance sectors choosing to retrain in trades such as construction or horticulture.


The value of industry training

Research in 2004 found that people who received industry training were likely to be up to 20% more productive in their jobs. Workplaces that made changes to take advantage of this training, or offered training that was part of a formal programme such as through an ITO, could gain even greater productivity benefits.

As shortages of some work skills became severe, employers began to consult the ITOs about how to make the best use of the existing skills in their workforce. The strategic leadership role of ITOs was recognised by a change to the Industry Training Act in 2002.

In the 2000s some traditional problems with industry training remained. Women were still not well represented in workplace-based training, except for traditionally female occupations such as hairdressing. The increasing technical complexity of trades such as motor-vehicle maintenance meant that greater theoretical knowledge in maths and sciences was required, as well as practical training. And some employers still viewed workplace training as a cost rather than an investment in the future of their industry.

COVID-19 recovery

As part of the government’s programme to help the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it injected extra funding into trades training schemes, including apprenticeships. It funded employers to take on apprentices and tertiary education organisations to cover fees so they could provide education and training for free. In its first two years the scheme resulted in 190,000 people receiving trades and apprenticeship training. There was a 55 per cent increase in the number of apprentices between 2020 and 2022. 

This scheme was initially focused on primary industries (including agriculture, horticulture and viticulture), fisheries, forestry, construction, manufacturing, mechanical and electrical engineering, road transport, and community support, including for those wanting to train in youth work, care for the elderly, counselling, mental health and addiction support. The target area was later expanded to include training in conservation, including freshwater management, biodiversity and biosecurity; information technology; and a wider range of community support roles, including enrolled nursing and teacher aides.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Jeremy Baker, 'Apprenticeships and trade training', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jeremy Baker, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010, updated 1 o Mei 2022