Open mike — We can crack the apprenticeship conundrum, says Denne Construction’s Nicholas Fowler, but only if clients create a business case for it

It would seem that talk of a skills crisis has been overdone. Although we need to recruit 87,600 workers a year, buildings are still being built – albeit with a good dollop of help from migrant workers. With signs of a slowdown in some sectors of the industry there is perhaps even less cause to worry.

However, the real issue is that thousands of young people who want to be in construction, and are engaged on full-time construction courses, are not getting the opportunities they need to enter the industry. The reality is that the lack of effective skills training in UK construction is fast heading towards economic and social catastrophe.

On the economic side, opportunities to improve productivity in the industry, and lower costs, are being lost. The quality and quantity of skills personnel at all levels is simply not sufficient for the demands being placed on the industry. On the social side, thousands of young people are being stopped from improving their life chances.

This is all taking place at a time when we have record levels of orders, a government committed to improving skills, a reasonably well funded further education sector and schools that now include construction on the curriculum. Yet the crisis is likely to get worse.

We have the usual well rehearsed excuses for this – the cost of training, the fickleness of young people, the fear of losing out to companies that do not train, and so on. Although relevant, these issues do not point the way to a solution. The other arguments, related to insurance and health and safety, are used as an excuse to do nothing.

Both clients and contractors need to rethink how they manage the construction process. Clients need to get smarter and contractors need to respond effectively.

Let’s start with the clients. They should recognise that they have a right, and in the public sector at least, an obligation, to build skills training into their requirements for projects. They need to translate this requirement into the specification of the project. And then they need to do what they generally do not do – to follow through by asking about it, supporting it, and taking action when it does not happen.

For contractors, the business case is simply not there and that is the heart of the problem. That is why there is insufficient training. That is why thousands of young people sign up to construction training in colleges who will never get an opportunity to work on site.

The marketing department might be aware of the importance of training for the future of the business, but you try telling that to the site team

Clients need to create the business case. If they do not ask for skills training, it will not happen on the scale that is needed. Any contractor, once they are required to deliver training, will do it. So suppose that clients got into the habit of demanding it on their projects? What next?

Contractors tend to see construction as delivering buildings, and they are not interested in things that will get in the way of that goal. Who would thank them for being late or over budget because they allowed factors such as training to get in their way?

What we need are contractors who understand that projects can be made up of a number of deliverables all of which have to be satisfied if the job is to be judged a success. The deliverables in this case include the building and the skills training; both are equally important.

In the UK we are blessed with a lot of contractors that are excellent at delivering buildings. So good in fact, that it’s hard to choose between them. This creates a real business opportunity for contractors that get good at delivering projects in the wider sense.

So what needs to be in place for a contractor to respond to the project deliverable of skills training? The factors that are necessary for success are:

  • A commitment from the top. This is important because the contractor will need to employ apprentices, even though they probably do not have a directly employed craft workforce. They will employ them and place them with their trade contractors.
  • A supportive and committed supply chain of trade contractors. They will provide the necessary supervision for the main contractors’ apprentices. Most trade contractors, when asked, will do this quite happily; but they are rarely asked.
  • An engaged site team. The marketing department of the contractor might be only too well aware of the importance of this approach for securing the future of the business, but you try telling that to the site team. They have a job to do and being distracted by trainees is not part of it.
  • Someone to facilitate, cajole, deal with the paperwork, carry out risk assessments and smooth over troubled water. This is a major undertaking for an industry that has generally lost the habit of training.

An important step in this direction is ConstructionSkills’ National Skills Academy for Construction centres. These centres, to be located on major construction projects, set out training programmes that integrate with the delivery of the projects. They cover schools and apprenticeships through to upskilling the existing workforce. Although not all projects will be large enough to support the scale of training that is required at these centres, elements of their training plans can easily be integrated within projects of virtually any size.

As an industry we have a choice. Clients have a power that they generally do not use. Contractors need to think of how best to respond – simply focus on building buildings, or deliver projects that satisfy clients’, and in turn, society’s wider objectives.