Construction has always valued experience and ability over background and connections. But it can still do a lot more to help increase social mobility - and apprenticeships should be at the heart of our efforts

James Wates

There is no shortage of issues specific to the built environment sector to keep our attentions occupied, but we are wise to also keep an eye on broader issues and challenges facing society. A recent report by CIOB explores one such issue, that of social mobility.

Launched in December, the CIOB’s report, Social Mobility and Construction: Building routes to opportunity, provides us with some useful food for thought and specific recommendations for change.

The context is compelling. Conventional wisdom attributes the result of last June’s EU referendum at least partly to a broader economic malaise, the feeling that the UK’s economic progress is leaving a sizeable portion of the population behind. Some measures of social mobility seem to support this perception, and the CIOB report concludes: “There is a growing consensus among leading academics and politicians that social mobility in the UK is in reverse.”

In November, a report by the government-appointed Social Mobility Commission (the State of the Nation 2016 report) highlighted that: “If current trends continue, nine million low-skilled people could be chasing four million jobs, with a shortage of three million workers to fill 15 million high-skilled jobs by 2022.” So we are looking at a scenario in which the lower-skilled are not only earning less, but are more likely to be out of work.

This is clearly on the prime minister’s mind. Since taking office in July, she has talked on numerous occasions about ensuring that capitalism works for the many, not just the few. Setting the tone in her first speech as prime minister, she said: “We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.” That’s something all can agree with, so we in the built environment sector need to take it to heart and examine whether we are doing our part.

After all, it’s not just the right thing to do; it’s in our best interest. As the CIOB report puts it, “low social mobility robs the nation of potential talent”, and in a sector struggling with a skills shortage, any type of exclusion is not just plain wrong but plain stupid.

In a sector struggling with a skills shortage, any type of exclusion is not just plain wrong but plain stupid

Brexit threatens to restrict the supply of skilled builders we have accessed in recent years, and we need to be replacing this in the long term with home-grown talent, drawing from the widest possible pool of individuals, regardless of socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds. As Building’s new Building a Better Brexit campaign says, the threat to our supply of skilled builders comes just at the time the government is relying on construction to expand delivery of housing and major infrastructure schemes.

Despite our sector’s poor performance in attracting women and people from ethnic minorities, we actually have a strong foundation on which to build when it comes to social mobility. Many leaders in the industry started out as tradesmen and rose through the ranks. The value we place on the artisan skills and our willingness to give masters of such skills an opportunity to take on supervisory and managerial responsibilities is evident.

This is confirmed by a CITB report from 2013, Career and Training Progression Routes in the Construction Industry, which detailed a strong perception that the industry provided opportunities for individuals to progress even when starting out with limited qualifications.

The sector has some great examples of programmes that help people get their lives back on track, such as the Wates Group “Building Futures” programme that helps those furthest from work – including ex-offenders and other marginalised groups – get a foot on the employment ladder.

More so than many sectors, construction has a culture that values experience and ability, not just background and connections. The CIOB report concludes that “among the UK industries, construction ranks near the top for social mobility.” This is a good start but I believe we need to do more. For example, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy can be seen as an opportunity. Apprenticeships are a key enabler to social mobility – giving individuals the opportunity to acquire qualifications, even academic degrees, without incurring debt.

This is in line with the aspirations of skills minister Robert Halfon, who has made social mobility a key pillar of his efforts to promote apprenticeships. And the government has put money behind this, investing £60m to support training for apprentices from the poorest neighbourhoods, and providing money for training apprentices with learning or other disabilities.

Such incentives need to be matched with a conscious effort from companies to use apprenticeships to promote social mobility, coupled with a cultural shift towards more inclusivity. How do we make this change happen? The CIOB report offers a number of useful recommendations, including:

  • Construction businesses should introduce and/or expand mentoring schemes to specifically support those from less-advantaged backgrounds
  • The industry can support schemes that widen access to management and the professions
  • The professional institutions can spread understanding of the built environment’s impact on social mobility and provide greater routes for degree-level learning among those working within construction
  • The government can take a longer-term view of construction as a strategic industry and a motor for social mobility – seeking, through strategic investment, to reduce the volatility, and making construction a core part of the industrial strategy.

James Wates OBE is chairman of Wates Group, the CITB and Build UK