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$7 an hour: 'how the hell do you do it?'

By Kylie Northover
The Age

Mark Wilkinson recently completed a four-year carpentry apprenticeship and is ready to start his career in the construction industry. But like a growing number of his fellow graduates, he's not 21 and living at home - Wilkinson is 38, with two children to support.

After working in sales and account management for years, a stint helping out a mate as an unskilled labourer prompted him to reconsider his career path.

''I really enjoyed the hands-on labouring work but realised I couldn't go on that way through my life unskilled,'' he says.

''An apprenticeship is really a pillar to work from, even if you don't end up using it directly.''

Spurred on by the government's incentives for apprentices over 30 ($150 a week for the first year; $100 for the second), Wilkinson signed up.

''There's a common myth that because you're older, you're getting better money, but it was a massive pay cut for me; it was hard to suddenly go to $7 an hour after all those years in a corporate job, then making really good money on a unionised site.''

Unlike many older apprentices, Wilkinson had a buffer - but it meant effectively choosing between furthering his career and buying a house, as he lived largely on money he had been saving for a mortgage.

''I was very lucky in some respects that I hadn't already got myself a mortgage,'' he says.

''But I don't know how people who haven't saved money do it. All my friends my age would ask me, 'How the hell do you do it?' ''

Even with money in the bank, there were times that were tight.

''I just had to grit my teeth. There are things you can do - I found an employer that had some Saturday work and negotiated for a Saturday rate of $20 an hour, even if it wasn't proper carpentry work, but just loading trucks.

''Nobody wants to go to work on a Saturday for $7 an hour - I'd rather spend it with my children. You think, 'I'm already broke so I might as well be a little bit more broke'.''

Published: 06 March 2012

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