More of the same training means more bad press, poor productivity and an industry struggling to find people willing to fill its job vacancies. The newly-announced T-level may give us the chance to change all that

Can vocational education solve the construction sector’s ills?

For decades, vocational training has taken a back seat in the British education system. As the number of students choosing to do A-levels and going on to study at university has grown considerably, vocational courses have been consistently ignored.

The disparity between higher education and vocational training is evident in the funding system. Students aged 16-19 on vocational courses attract less than half the funding of their peers in higher education, with those over the age of 19 on technical courses getting even less.

Now vocational training has returned to centre stage – and rightly so. Philip Hammond’s introduction of T-levels in the recent spring Budget marks the realisation that years of underfunding and bias towards higher education has led to the UK’s current productivity crisis. The country’s productivity remains stagnant and lags hopelessly behind nations like Germany, with a German worker making £1.35 in the time a British worker makes £1.

The chancellor’s overhaul of vocational education is a welcome break from the recent past. Pledges of over £500m a year in funding, a more streamlined curriculum, 50% more time in the classroom for students, and a greater focus on the skills that are needed in each sector, will all help improve the UK’s productivity. In the case of the construction industry, however, the renewed focus on vocational training needs to be considered and targeted.

If a T-level in construction is going to bring the right skills into the industry and help modernise construction, it needs to include training in both traditional methods of construction and emerging digital-led pre-manufactured construction technologies. The declining size of the available workforce, as well as general demographic shifts, mean that the UK will have to build more with less. In other words, improving productivity isn’t optional. Design for manufacture and assembly, off-site methods, robotics, visualisation and automation will all play their part in delivering future homes and infrastructure throughout the UK, and technical training must reflect that.

Vocational training programmes lacking a dual focus across traditional and modern techniques could leave students ill-prepared for an industry that must urgently adapt to survive

Traditional construction methods will always be heavily used throughout the industry and vocational learning linked to pre-manufacturing is more about building capacity rather than cannibalising the traditional site-based workforce. However, vocational training programmes lacking a dual focus across traditional and modern techniques could leave students ill-prepared for an industry that must urgently adapt to survive.

Collaboration between industry and education is therefore crucial to ensure the success of the construction T-level and redefined apprenticeship programmes. The T-level must offer a clear path into work, as well as links to further work-based training and specialisation aligned to the industry’s future requirements. Industry partners know where skills are currently needed, and to an extent understand the trajectory of the market.

However, the important point is that in this transitional period, as the industry starts reacting to its unprecedented manpower challenges, some industry partners and in turn, academic and FE institutions, may not see the demand for pre-manufacturing at a sufficient level to warrant running dedicated courses, or even partial courses.

We must carefully design and implement new courses while the level of pre-manufacture-led construction demand is increasing in parallel. Nobody wants people being trained for skills where there is little market demand and employment prospects, but nor can we afford to wait for the sector to mature before we start training people differently – this is a “chicken and egg” situation. The government has a key role to play here in terms of both further education funding and course design priorities, as well as how the Homes and Communities Agency and other departments help stimulate pre-manufacture market demand alongside the growing private sector interest.

A vibrant and comprehensive construction T-level that offers clear opportunities in the construction sector across a wider variety of pathways, could do wonders for construction’s public-facing image. An education programme that incorporates modern methods of construction, and the digital technologies that enable it, will help the sector shake off perceptions of poor working conditions, lack of diversity, and will make it far more attractive to potential new entrants.

Improving both the quality and the number of new entrants into the construction sector is essential for a modern, robust industry. The current spate of bad press around construction quality failures, especially in housebuilding, has brought this sharply into focus. The sector needs 700,000 new workers entering the labour pool over the next 10 years just to replace retirees, and this is before considering further risks related to Brexit.

The likelihood of our reaching those numbers is currently remote and the risk is that pressure to increase headcount drives behaviours, not basic training levels and competence. We need to be training for a higher productivity, high quality industry, not “business as usual”. In my opinion, if we pursue more of the same, we are doomed to failure.

Mark Farmer is founding director and chief executive at consultant Cast and author of the industry report Modernise or Die