Firms should use the apprenticeship system to meet the industry’s long-term needs as competition with other industries is set to increase

Sarah Richardson

Back in 2007, on each side of the Atlantic, apprenticeships were attracting public attention for very different reasons. Over in the US, one Donald Trump was raking in the rewards from his burgeoning Apprentice TV franchise, a grimly compelling showcase of the future president’s brash leadership style. Meanwhile, to slightly less fanfare, and with an emphasis more on hiring than firing, the UK launched its first National Apprenticeship Week; an initiative designed to raise awareness of the benefits of vocational training off the back of a Blairite era which feted academic education.

A decade on, Trump – still grimly compelling – couldn’t be more entrenched in the public consciousness. But the same can’t yet be said for the awareness of the merits of apprenticeships in the UK, particularly not when it comes to construction. This year’s National Apprenticeship Week, which starts on Monday, comes as the sector faces a predicted decline in available labour of up to 25% over the next 10 years, as older workers retire without a supply of younger ones to take their place.

Despite 10 years of industry debate about the best way to attract recruits to a sector which struggles with an unglamorous image – and some laudable efforts to do so by individual businesses and industry bodies – the trend across the sector as a whole has been to fire-fight skills gaps by plugging them with labour from Eastern Europe. With the government heading towards a hard Brexit, that option is now rapidly unravelling.

This week, pro-Brexit Tory MP Richard Bacon described the industry’s dependence on foreign labour as “politically, economically, and socially unsustainable”. But the fact is that whatever the perceived rights or wrongs of the knock-on effects, construction businesses have for years simply made pragmatic use of a vast pool of labour legitimately made available to them by the actions of politicians, in joining and then expanding the EU.

The industry has significant concerns about the new levy – not least whether, faced with greater competition from other sectors, construction will be able to recruit its share of workers

For companies looking to the next project, there was no burning platform; no urgent incentive to change their approach to training, unless they chose to do so out of a sense of industry leadership or community responsibility. And initiatives put in place at an industry-wide level by the CITB have not been enough to secure the sector’s future – perhaps because the sector as a whole lacked the urgency to come together to push for a different system.

Now, however, it’s a different story. The effect a hard Brexit could have on the sector’s skills was highlighted in a report by London’s City Hall this week, which revealed that more than a quarter of the capital’s construction workers come from the EU. Statistics like this, when London is in the grip of a housing crisis, and has a huge pipeline of critical infrastructure projects, underline why the industry needs some form of transitional arrangement over EU labour.

But even if the sector is successful in securing a deal, the trajectory of the government’s approach to Brexit shows that it will not be able to rely on this in the medium to long term. There are growing signs that the industry realises this: Building reported last week, for example, that Heathrow is aiming to reduce the need for site workers by a third on its future expansion by investing in offsite technologies.

Meanwhile, after years of deckchair-shuffling, the CITB has woken up to the need for serious reform, thanks to the imposition of the all-industry apprenticeship levy from next month. As we report this week, the industry has significant concerns about the new levy – not least whether, faced with greater competition from other sectors, construction will be able to recruit its share of workers. But the sector needs to do everything in its power to make this levy work – both to secure future workers, and because getting its house in order on training will vastly advance the case for transitional help with skills.

So it is in businesses’ interests to play by the spirit of the new system, rather than just the rules: create apprenticeships that don’t just rebadge training to recoup cash, but actually meet the industry’s long-term needs. And if apprentices aren’t jumping at the chance to join the sector, go out into schools and colleges and convince them otherwise.

Because this time, there is a burning platform – and when the government triggers Article 50, the heat will only intensify.

Sarah Richardson, editor