Economic rebound might give firms more headroom to employ apprentices yet also increase demand for skilled workers
For those of you tempted to take Eric Idle’s advice from the Olympics closing ceremony and look on the bright side of life, the flipside of our current economic woes might seem to be an easing of the chronic skills shortages that have beset UK construction since the mid-nineties.
In a recession that has cost 250,000 UK construction jobs, it’s hardly surprising, and might be considered a boon of a kind, that it’s now possible to get workers to site without having to promise a king’s ransom. Likewise, labour costs have been kept on a relatively even keel for four years.
But anyone drawing comfort from this state of affairs will have completely missed the point. Because at the same time as employers have - to an extent - been reaping the benefits of a lower demand for skilled labour, the industry has been storing up a whole heap of trouble for whenever the economy turns around.
How? By failing to train the young people of today to join the industry when the recovery comes.
Figures from industry training board ConstructionSkills show that with the decline in the economy, the number of new apprenticeships each year has fallen by half in four years. This is a truly shocking statistic, and one that gives the lie to the government’s so-called apprenticeship success story (pages 22-23).
While an economic rebound might give firms more headroom to employ apprentices, it will also, of course, hugely increase the demand for skilled people. Unfortunately, it simply won’t be able to provide them
The construction industry is clearly not willing to make the commitment to take on new young people for a two or three-year stretch. Although this is an entirely understandable response by individual companies to tough times, narrowing margins and uncertain workloads, for the industry as a whole it’s disastrous. With 1.5 million people employed in the construction industry, just 8,000 are starting apprenticeships each year. It needs to be four times that number.
And while an economic rebound might give firms more headroom to employ apprentices, it will also, of course, hugely increase the demand for skilled people. Unfortunately, it simply won’t be able to provide them.
So the industry, with the help of the government, has to do more to address this problem - and now. Public sector bodies need to be tougher about stipulating training as part of government contracts. At the same time, new vehicles need to be set up designed to share risk, to ensure employers don’t avoid taking on apprentices for fear of being left out of pocket when a particular contract ends.
ConstructionSkills, which helps fund apprenticeships through the industry levy, is now in talks with the government to give employers control of the millions of pounds in funding currently given to colleges for construction-related courses (page 9). If this happens, it should ensure those qualifications are fit for purpose, relevant, and suit the real needs of the market - not betraying young people by issuing them worthless pieces of paper.
However, first the industry needs to show itself capable of acting in concert for the best interest of the UK and its young people. When most of the biggest 32 contractors don’t employ any apprentices at all, something is clearly wrong. More government action is required but some of the industry’s big employers also need to look to themselves.
Joey Gardiner, assistant editor