Construction apprenticeships are as popular as ever with young people, but employers are less enthusiastic about the costs involved. So what can be done to give young people a secure path into the industry?

A sure way in
A sure way in

The number of craft trade trainees joining construction has been steadily increasing for the past five years. In the year 2002/03, 49,000 trade recruits entered the industry. And CITB-ConstructionSkills alone placed more than 9000 young people on modern apprenticeships last year – a 10% increase on 2001.

But to manage its workload, construction needs 83,000 entrants each year by 2007. It’s a challenging figure considering that 75% of the industry still does not train apprentices. It’s not that young people are not interested; employers are finding that demand for apprenticeship places outstrips supply. But many of the industry’s small companies, which together employ more than 60% of construction’s workforce, find there is not a strong enough business case for taking on trainees although they report a shortage of skilled craftspeople.

Seventy-Five percent of the industry still does not train apprentices

ConstructionSkills is addressing this problem through the SSA, which involves major contractors and subcontractors working in partnership so they can share responsibility for training throughout the supply chain on major projects (see “A collective task”, page 12).

CITB-ConstructionSkills also offers apprenticeship grants to employers worth up to £8000 (see “Need an incentive?”, page 22). It’s a popular offer and the number of grants allocated to employers has increased 50% over the past three years. But the scheme is now at its limit and if a step-change in the number of apprenticeships is to be achieved, alternative funds need to be found to cover employers’ training costs.


In SSA consultations, the Major Contractors Group and the Major Home Builders Group have made commitments in principle to find more work-based placements for young people.

An employer's view

NG Bailey, mechanical and electrical services contractor, has invested in apprenticeships for more than 50 years. The company, which has an annual turnover of £350m and 3750 employees, says its steady growth over the years is a direct result of its investment in staff training and development.

The company offers a range of apprenticeships covering electrics, heating and ventilation, plumbing and building services engineering. Each apprenticeship lasts four years with electrics students completing 24 weeks in college and the remainder on site, most other apprentices spend 14-16 weeks in college. On site or in college, the emphasis is on the practical skills and all the tutors are themselves tradespeople.

Most apprentices are aged 16-19 and demand for places is fierce. Training manager Alison Ashworth-Brown says last year the firm sent out 2000 application forms carried out 70 aptitude tests and then finally recruited 70 apprentices. At any one time the company will be training 350-400 apprentices.

All apprentices train at the firm's Leeds-based craft training department and live as boarders with local landlords. NG Bailey stumps up the rent. "For many, it'll be the first time they have lived away from home so it's important that they are comfortable with their lodging," says Ashworth-Brown.

The company is about to introduce a buddy system. Ashworth-Brown says, "New trainees will have a buddy for the first two years of their training. The buddy will be someone who is dedicated to helping them at any time."

National Construction College

The National Construction College is the largest provider of construction training in the UK. Last year the college trained more than 35,000 people at its four college campuses and through its site based courses. The college also provides a recruitment service to companies looking for trainees, in 2003 employer uptake of apprenticeships reached almost 100%.

Run by CITB-ConstructionSkills, the college offers courses at all levels of competence for every specialised field in the construction trade.

All new entrant courses are foundation or advanced modern apprenticeships incorporating NVQ Levels 2 or 3, which combine work on site with the apprentice's employer with theoretical teaching at the college. Apprenticeship courses are offered in plant operation and maintenance, scaffolding, steeplejacking, civil engineering, flooring, roofing and interior systems.

In response to industry demand, the college has developed five new courses for 2004/05 with a health and safety focus.

Andy Newell is a senior training manager at CITB-ConstructionSkills and divides his time between the National Construction College's four sites.

Q - Are young people becoming more interested in following a career in construction?
A - Interest in construction as a career is picking up. Youngsters are beginning to realise that there are real incentives to working in the industry, such as a good chance of finding work and increasingly attractive rates of pay.

What do you think students enjoy about the college's courses?
The emphasis on practical training is important. About 60% of our courses are based on actually handling tools or operating equipment. And students spend a lot of time on site. Some will spend 40 weeks at the college and the rest of a two-year course on site. This keeps the workload varied. But I find most apprentices are motivated. After all, they have chosen to be here.

Is there anything frustrating about your work?
It can be very hard to find good trainers. They are out there but there's not a plentiful supply.

What do you enjoy most about working for the college?
Some of the trainees are very rewarding to work with. Many stay in touch with me. Construction's all about fostering relationships, at the end of the day.

Do you think construction training could be further improved?
The training we offer is excellent! I’m in no doubt about that. But we need to keep encouraging more employers to take on apprentices.