Thousands of apprentices left the industry during the recession and unless government and industy act fast they won’t be coming back

It could not be clearer to see how damaging the recession has been for apprenticeship recruitment in the construction industry. When I first wrote about the skills time bomb I said that the recession had dealt a serious blow to ambitions to increase the number of construction apprentices. Sadly, this was entirely accurate. In 2010, there were just over 5,200 apprenticeship starts through the CITB-ConstructionSkills managing agency. This is a big decline on pre-recession levels.

Recent forecasts from Construction Skills Network predict the annual recruitment requirement for the whole sector between 2011 and 2015 will be just below 43,000. Evidently, there is still a long way to go before we can be confident that we are taking on enough trainees to secure future success for the industry.

National Apprenticeship Week provides a great opportunity to share some of the very best practice that does exist in the industry, and to look forward to new ways of stepping up to the apprenticeship challenge.

The Cross-Industry Construction Apprenticeship Task Force (CCATF), which I currently chair, works to increase employer engagement in apprenticeship training so that the construction industry has the skills needed to meet demand going forward. The CCATF is committed to ensuring that employers who train apprentices receive the necessary support and recognition, as well as information about the funding available.

Employers who take on apprentices show a level of commitment to securing the future workforce and this must not go unnoticed, which is why several CCATF members have started to recognise apprentices and their employers at their own award ceremonies and industry celebrations.

The Government’s National Apprenticeship Service has also created a toolkit to help employers show off their commitment to training by using the Apprenticeship logos and certificates.
Clients should be better educated too so that businesses with apprenticeship programmes begin to see an even greater competitive advantage. Above all, this should apply to clients in the public sector.

The public sector commissions around 40% of all construction work and must, therefore, use its position to drive apprentice training through the procurement process with apprentice training requirements based on contract size for all appropriate public sector projects.

The Government must award public contracts to construction firms with apprentices on their payroll

In order to achieve this, there must be widespread implementation of the Office of Government Commerce guidelines ’Promoting skills through public procurement’. There is no time for wasted opportunities and I speak for many in the industry when calling on the Government to take further steps to ensure public money only goes to the contractors helping to training the future workforce.

The need to engage the whole of the industry in the apprenticeship challenge is another reason for linking public procurement to apprenticeship training. Historically, small and medium sized contractors have trained approximately 65% of the industry’s apprentices, but the SME sector has been hit particularly badly by the economic downturn and over 3,600 apprentices have been displaced since the recession started.

Around two thirds of those have still not found new employers to help complete their training and risk being lost to the industry completely. Therefore, where public investment in construction projects is still forthcoming there should be obligations the Government must be sure those awarded the contracts have apprentices on their payroll.

Apprenticeships are so successful because they are employer led and the qualifications on offer are designed to equip the learner with the skills required by the industry; employers are at the very heart of apprenticeships.

Of course, announcements by the Government this week about additional funding for apprenticeship training are very welcome, but in order to really make a difference politicians must continue to make the businesses case for hiring an apprentice.