National Apprentice Week in February did a lot to highlight the plight of trade apprentices and the lack of adequate places for them as the recession continues. Much was said about not repeating the mistakes of the last downturn. But the people who get forgotten in all this are the ‘non-trade’ apprentices
Let’s start with undergraduates looking for placements. One Midlands university told me that of 70 undergraduates, only a handful had secured a work placement. These undergraduates will become the managers and leaders of the future. The only thing the university can do is to bring them back for their final academic year and send them off at the end of their course, unable to graduate because of the absence of a placement.
Alternatively the students are awarded a three-year full-time degree and, as was the case in the last recession, the industry then complains that the quality of graduates is unacceptable. What a surprise!
In the 1990s we lost a generation of graduates. To repeat this is a real failure of the construction industry to learn the lessons of the past. There is an overemphasis on the trade apprentice to the detriment of the skill needs of the industry as a whole.
How many more bricklayers do we need? Innovation can and should design out old materials and skills. Skilled tradespeople have a part to play in heritage and conservation work. But for the buildings of the future? I’m not sure. We will always need capable and effective management and leadership. That side of the industry gets short shrift at the moment, and is almost invisible within ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council.
It is politically more attractive to be seen to be doing something with trade apprentices. It is easier to understand someone laying a few bricks in a 10 second video clip than a young person in a suit at a desk on a computer.
I am not against trade apprenticeships, I just think we have lost sight of the other very committed group of young people who are being left out in the cold, but who should become the real future of the industry.
So what do I say to the university staff who ask why their students are ignored? Perhaps they ought to write to the Commission for Skills and Employment. As ConstructionSkills is up for re-licensing this year, it could be the ideal time to point out that something is amiss.
Chris Blythe is chief executive of the CIOB