Office of Government Commerce has advised spending departments on how to include apprenticeship requirements in contracts without breaking EU law

Building firms that take on apprentices may be favoured for public sector work this year, according to guidance issued by the Office of Government Commerce on Friday.

In an attempt to raise the number of construction apprentices to 14,000 and shore up the sector’s skills base, the OGC has explained to government spending departments how they can include apprenticeship requirements in their tenders without falling foul of EU competition law.

A spokesperson for the Department for Skills, which issued the guidance in conjunction with the OGC, said it would be up to individual departments as to how they wished to interpret the guidance when letting work. He said: “It depends on the type of contract. The department is not setting out in detail what we expect to see and where. We are not being proscriptive about, say, apprenticeships for three electricians and plasterer. We didn’t want to go into any level of detail into how it might work.”

Skills secretary, John Denham, said: “In tough times, it is vital that we continue to invest in our nation’s skills. We want to play a leading role by making greater use of the £175bn a year the government spends on construction work to promote skills and training opportunities.

“It is only right that the significant investment in new schools, colleges and hospitals does more than provide new buildings for world-class public services.”

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, said public procurement was key to driving investment in skills and training. He said: “During the recession, it is vital that the nation’s investment in skills, and particularly apprenticeships, is maintained and grows. Good employers will recognise that it is crucial both to survive now and prosper the future when the economy recovers.

The government will also seek to “maximise training, employment and apprenticeship opportunities” across all its projects this year, including the £5bn Homes and Communities Agency procurement initiative as well as the Building Schools for the Future and Olympic programmes. The Olympic Delivery Authority will stipulate in new contracts that 3% of workers must be apprentices, creating 250 more places.