Kicking out apprentices and slashing training is not going to cure the recession, but it will kill the recovery. What firms need to do is keep their nerve – and their staff

As the recession gnaws ever deeper into the construction industry’s vitals, it is becoming clear that one of the casualties will be training programmes. Some have described this as a failure to learn the lessons of the recession in the early nineties. On that occasion, cutbacks in the industry led to losses of capacity that took years to put right. Only in the early 21st century had the industry, buoyed by almost a decade of continuous growth, recovered from the disastrous loss of skills that followed that downturn.

Ironically, it is not true that we have failed to learn the lesson. Throughout the industry there is an acute awareness of the risk of losing skills and capacity. But despite this, harsh economic realities are beginning to impose a remorseless logic. If the choice is between short-term survival and longer-term capacity, the former is almost always going to prevail. Hence the decisions being taken by many employers to cut back on recruitment and training and to lay off apprentices.

In an easier economic climate, most of the businesses that are shedding trainees would have taken a different decision. But most now feel they have no choice. Some are exploring imaginative options to keep the door open for future growth. So we are seeing graduates offered a “gap year” before taking up job options that would otherwise have been available this autumn. There has also been some intelligent thinking about “back-loading” the work experience year that otherwise would have occurred in the middle of, for example, architectural degree courses. If there are no prospects for employing sandwich course students in the middle of their studies, it must make sense to explore alternative phasing.

There is an acute awareness of the risk of losing skills. But despite this, economic realities are beginning to impose a remorseless logic

There are also enlightened employers who are doing their utmost to maintain skills development and training programmes, knowing that in the post recession world there will be a premium on the ability to innovate. The unavoidable challenge of de-carbonising our economy means that the construction industry will have to raise its game dramatically in the coming decade. Without appropriately skilled designers and managers, the industry will be hopelessly ill-equipped to rise to this demanding agenda.

But there is also a crucial role for the government. As the largest client of the construction industry, and its regulator, as well as manager of the national economy, government has to motivate the industry to avoid taking the easy, short-term option of sacrificing training and capacity.

There are many ways in which the government can exercise a positive influence. The recent budget sent some powerful signals about the importance of investing in low-carbon technology. These messages need to be reinforced over the coming months as the Department for Energy and Climate Change develops its proposals for those older buildings that make a disproportionate contribution to carbon emissions. New, cost-effective solutions to reducing emissions from existing buildings are essential to meet the government’s climate change targets. They could also play an important role in helping the industry to recover from the recession and secure competitive advantage in what will be a key development market in the coming decade.

At a time when firms may be tempted to sacrifice training programmes, the maintenance of a clear government commitment to well-targeted training will be vital

It is also vital that government, both central and local, does not back off from promoting training opportunities as part of development schemes. One notable success story of recent years has been the imposition of obligations under section 106 agreements that have led developers to provide training opportunities as part of new developments. Where such schemes have worked well, as I have seen in my constituency of Greenwich and Woolwich, there have been real benefits to the local economy, while the developers have felt equally positive about their contribution being put to good use. The way that the Olympic Development Authority has promoted training as part of its procurement policy has also been exemplary. At a time when firms may be tempted to sacrifice training programmes, the maintenance of a clear government commitment to well-targeted training will be vital.

The consequences of the recession are undeniably serious for the industry, but we still have the ability to learn lessons from the past and prevent a short-term crisis translating into a long-term disaster.