‘There’s heaps more to it’: Tradies defend ‘enormous’ pay packets after video goes viral

A viral video of tradies revealing their enormous pay packets, some totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, has sparked debate about whether the eye-watering salaries are justified.

This week, news.com.au shared a story about a clip produced by jobseeker app getahead featuring interviews with several Queenslanders working as carpenters, electricians, miners and scaffolders.

In it, they spill on the epic amounts they’re paid for their crafts, sparking a frenzy on social media, and some comments that they earn too much.

But the big figures mask a stark reality that many outside the skilled trades world fail to appreciate, and those taking home those big bucks insist they earn every penny.

Small bickies straight up

A fully qualified specialist working in a sought-after trade can definitely be rewarded with big bickies, but they need to spend several years working up to a decent wage.

Nick Filacuridi began his carpentry apprenticeship when he was 15, spending three years at TAFE and the fourth year on a job site learning practical skills.

“Then I did my builders’ [qualification], which was another two years on top of that,” Mr Filacuridi, now 23, said.

After a few years working for a company, he went out on his own in 2023 under the banner of NF Build, doing small renovations and decking and pergolas on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

Business is good and so is the money, but things weren’t always this way.

“When I started as an apprentice, I was earning $400 a week,” Mr Filacuridi revealed. “That’s 40 hours a week in the trenches, learning and doing the hard yards.

“If you want to make money, it doesn’t come easy – you’ve got to work for it, get all the right licences, find the right work, and then you can definitely make a good income.”

Even while working full-time for someone else, the young builder was doing jobs on the side to build up his income and work towards his dream of having his own business.

“So, when you hear about the big money tradies can make, there’s heaps more to it,” he said.

The dodgy operators

Luke Jovanovic started his electrical apprenticeship when he was 18, working in the residential space for a year before moving onto commercial projects.

These days, the now 25-year-old works in electrical servicing specialising in elevators.

His start in the industry was rough, with his employer forgetting to lodge his apprenticeship paperwork, meaning four months of time was ‘lost’ and his training was set back.

Mr Jovanovic was later let go and rehired by the same company so they could get out of paying mandatory contributions.

That inspired him to start a TikTok channel dispelling some of the myths of various trades – and sharing more than a few hard truths.

“It’s all about trying to help young apprentices have an understanding of what’s actually going on in the trade,” Mr Jovanovic said.

“It’s about the types of tools you need – not just the most expensive ones. It’s about how to know when you’re getting paid horribly or not looked after. It’s knowing the system.”

Joshua Isaac has heard some horror stories from other carpenters about their apprenticeships, contending with poor conditions and dodgy bosses.

“I had a pretty good one,” the 24-year-old said. “I had good bosses who taught me well and offered a good environment around me. It was tough in terms of having to learn pretty quickly. Apprenticeships are both a mental and physical battle.”

For several years now, the building industry has struggled with attracting a sufficient number of apprentices, sparking calls for greater government and employer incentives.

Mr Isaac doesn’t think it’s a case of young Aussies not wanting to do the work, but being turned off by the prospect of incredibly hard work for pretty minimal pay.

“I get it, but for me, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the experience, about learning, building your personality, building your skills.

“I think that’s how it needs to be approached. It’s an investment in your future. If it’s all about the money, I think that’s where people come unstuck.

‘Not worth it’

One of Mr Jovanovic’s most talked-about videos is one titled, ‘Carpentry isn’t worth the time or money’.

“Let’s talk to the facts,” he says in it.

“You’re gonna be a chippie, working like a dog, get treated like a dog. You’ll work 10, 12, 14-hour days, [have to] get your own car, your own trailer, deck it out.

“You do a whole deck, fence, house, whatever – everything. Your boss, he’s not going to pay you more than $35 or $40 an hour from what I’ve seen.

“It’s hard and you do too much for not a lot of gain.”

When it comes to carpentry, Mr Jovanovic said there’s “not a whole lot of benefit working for an employer”.

“I’m not saying don’t get into carpentry,” he explained.

“Just please understand the facts and the numbers before you jump to it. When you’re young, you make big decisions and you might think, I’ll just do this for a few years and if I don’t like it, I’ll leave. But often you don’t, and you stick it out for 10 or 15 years, then what?”

Physically demanding work

In his first few years of his apprenticeship, Mr Filacuridi found himself wondering a few times if he was going to last until he was in his 30s.

“It’s tough on the body,” he said.

“You kind of get used to it – you have to. It’s about adapting to the conditions. It’s learning to lift things correctly, drinking plenty of water, and just looking after yourself.”

And summer can be a real nightmare, he said, adding: “Even on days where it’s only 24C or so, the humidity is a killer.”

Many of the particularly physically demanding trades are seen as a young man’s game, Shane Moore, managing director of insurance brokerage Trade Risk, pointed out.

“There’s a reason you don’t really see, for example, a 50-year-old bricklayer,” Mr Moore said.

“For a lot of these tradies, they’ve got to earn their money when they’re young because eventually their bodies won’t allow them to keep working.”

That’s why so many tradies have aspirations of going out on their own, Mr Moore said. They’re aware that their careers have something of a used-by date.

“It’s alright for some of them who will then create a business and get off the tools and transition to more of an office job, running a business.

“But it’s a small percentage of people who actually make it work – who are successful.

“When you imagine someone being 50, trying to slug it out every day on a building site, their body pretty worn out, those seemingly high salaries really make sense.”

Gruelling conditions

Some trades pay more than others – and some jobs can offer massive financial incentives, but usually at a personal cost.

After working as a residential and commercial electrician, Mr Jovanovic branched out into refrigeration servicing, but didn’t last too long.

“I found the hours to be super long and the work super tiring on the body,” he recalled. “Some of the guys, when they’re on call, they’re working like 70, 80 or 90 hours a week, seven days. That’s obviously a lot.

“I spent a lot of time away from home too, working in Sydney, a bit on the Gold Coast, and in South Australia. I got to see different parts of Australia, but it just personally wasn’t for me. The long hours were crazy.”

Unbelievable work hours are common when large salaries are involved, he said.

He has mates working on major infrastructure projects who do 12-hour shifts overnight, say from 7pm to 7am, and clear a whopping $6000 a week.

“But the conditions are pretty brutal and there’s no flexibility. You can’t just call your boss and say you’ve got a doctor’s appointment. You’re expected to be there, all day, every day.”

For many tradies, if they miss a day of work, they lose out on a day of pay.

“That’s why you have to make sure your body is ready every day,” Mr Isaac said.

“It’s not like an office job where you might feel a bit rubbish but you’re taking calls or doing the books, using your brain.

“We use our brains out there, but it’s very laborious work and takes a toll, so you’ve got to be able to cope with that.”

Getting up, ready for the day and at a site before the sun has risen, and “having the energy to get going”, is another struggle for some, he said.

“It can come as a shock to the system, that’s for sure.”

Cost of being your own boss

Being his own boss is something that suits Mr Filacuridi, but there are even more stark realities involved that take away some of the shine of the big salary.

“You’re up at all hours – the phone never stops,” he said.

“The day starts at six with organising everything, then you’re at the job by seven and you might be working in the rain or sun, trying to get things done because you can’t stand still.

“I might finish at four, but then I come home and you do my invoices or quotes, or ordering materials for the next job. And then it’s speaking with other trades about the next day.

“That’s the part I really like though – the chase, the business.”

Businessowners also have to fork out for various insurances, including public liability and builders’ warranties.

“On top of that there’s your ute, registration, I’ve got a rubbish trailer I need to run, so that too,” Mr Filacuridi said.

“Obviously you need a range of tools, and often more than you’d need as an employee. And because you’re not just on the job working for someone where you can borrow someone else’s stuff, you need all your own gear.”

Trades subcontracted by the business also need to be paid in a timely manner in order to maintain good relationships in an industry where skilled workers are scarce, he said.

“If someone works a day for you, they’re most likely going to invoice you that night. You want to pay them right away, which is fair. You need workers and a lot of that comes down to good relationships and keeping people busy.”

Cash flow is a “huge pain” for many tradies who work for themselves, Mr Moore said.

“They’re constant chasing people for money,” he said. “They’re chasing builders or clients just to get paid. There’s a lot of stress that goes into it. It’s not quite as simple as ‘charging out’ big money if someone doesn’t give it to you on time.”

And of course, in most trades, when things are good, they’re great, but markets can turn on a dime and lead to sharp downturns that wipe out work and leave workers scrambling.

Recent years have seen a tsunami of business failures in the building and construction sectors, leaving thousands out of work.

Is it really worth it?

For all the challenges involved – the tough conditions and arduous physical demands – Mr Filacuridi can’t imagine himself doing anything else.

“I just love it,” he said.

“I guess if I get busy enough one day where I can be off the tools and just sort of running the show behind the scenes, that still works for me, that’s fine. But at this point in time, I don’t ever see myself getting off the tools, that’s for sure.”

Mr Isaac said if you don’t love the trade you’re doing, putting up with the many and varied challenges of the job can be impossible.

“I love what I do – and I think you have to,” he said.

“What also helps is having a good environment around you, training in a positive environment, and it all just flows there. You just keep going.”

Having interests outside of work to allow space and time to decompress are also important, he said.

Mr Isaac runs a sports content platform called Short Shed TV, where he and a few mates produce interactive fan content.

Their TikTok videos have notched up 1.2 million likes and their Instagram has 4400 followers.

“We also run an annual charity match. The last one, we raised about $14,000 for the Mark Hughes Foundation and Ronald McDonald House. The year before, we about $11,000.

“I think it’s good to put your mind to many different things, to have things you want to accomplish and to set goal for yourself, to help you grow as a person.”

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