The introduction of T-levels is being sold as a lifeline for industries like construction, but Brexit threatens to derail any benefits

Michael Thirkettle

The introduction of T-levels announced in last week’s Budget - putting technical qualifications on a par with A-levels - could be viewed, on the surface, that the government is finally prioritising workplace skills.

Fifteen new courses will be available under the shake-up, including ones in construction, social care, digital technology and engineering, areas that have long suffered from skills shortages. In a recent survey by the RICS for example, 56% of construction firms said skills shortages were a constraint on growth, with the likes of trades such as bricklayers in especially short supply.

Vocational qualifications have consistently been perceived as the poor relation to academic certifications. Yet with employers frequently complaining that school leavers - and graduates - are ill-prepared for work, it’s about time that they enjoyed equal esteem.

Statistics show that the UK ranks a paltry 16th out of 20 OECD countries when it comes to the percentage of its population with a worthwhile technical education.  Meanwhile, our competitors have long seen the benefits of technical qualifications. In Germany, for example, there are proper, joined-up qualifications at every level providing pathways to apprenticeships and careers. Youth unemployment in Germany was 6.5% in December - the lowest in the EU - where in the UK it stood at 12.6%.

The more pressing issue is that with the first courses not expected until the 2019/20 academic year - and all 15 in total not coming on stream until autumn 2022

However, the more pressing issue is that with the first courses not expected until the 2019/20 academic year - and all 15 in total not coming on stream until autumn 2022 - the first graduates under the new qualifications are some way off from being workplace ready. And time is a luxury we do not have. With Article 50 on the horizon, industries like construction are set to be hit hard by an exodus of skilled workers.

Fervent Brexiteers may well groan, but the reality is that the construction industry is heavily reliant on an itinerant workforce. Nearly 12% of the 2.1 million construction workers in the UK come from abroad - mainly from the EU - with Poland and Romania the most common countries of origin. 

Skilled workers from countries like these are plugging a significant gap: the construction industry employs more than 320,000 fewer workers than it did a decade ago before the financial crisis and recession hit.

The government therefore needs to prioritise T-levels in the areas of greatest need. This is not just because of the effect on the competitiveness of the construction industry. The government’s ambitious housing plans depend on it. Equally, the UK government has developed one of the most extensive national infrastructure programmes in Europe, with major projects such as HS2 and Crossrail lauded as putting Britain back on track. Those too will be put at risk if the skilled labour supply is choked.

In the more immediate future, the government needs to consider how EU withdrawal does not mean the industry is stifled by a reduction in skilled labour. The new work permits system currently being drawn up should prioritise entry for skilled construction workers from the EU - at least until sufficient supply of T-level graduates is in place to meet the current shortfall.

T-levels have the potential to finally address the long-term issue of skills shortages in the construction industry, but we cannot let Brexit derail this aim in the short-term. 

Michael Thirkettle is chief executive of McBains Cooper, an international construction and property consultancy operating in Europe and Latin America