Trade unions are pushing for strict quotas for apprentices employed on public sector contracts to stave off the skills crisis in industries such as construction, writes Sarah Richardson.

At the annual TUC in Brighton this week, unions from across the industry backed a motion from Ucatt calling for government contracts to include clauses requiring contractors to provide craft-based apprenticeships.

The move came as skills secretary John Denham announced that the government was establishing a “clearing house” to match apprentices at risk of redundancy with employers so that they could complete their training.

Denham said: “We don’t want to lose young, skilled trainees from the industry. In the past construction has been kept afloat by an uncertain and fluctuating pool of migrant labour.”

The minister reiterated a pledge to create 42,000 apprenticeships in construction by 2012, saying that these would provide “proper training in real jobs”.

Construction has been kept afloat by an uncertain pool of migrant labour

John Denham

Despite the government’s promises, the unions pledged to pressure it to redress a regional imbalance in apprenticeship opportunities; a far higher number are offered in northern England and Scotland compared with London and the South-east.

Wilf Flynn, executive council member of Ucatt for the northern region, said: “You don’t train a tradesperson by sitting them in a classroom. If we don’t get it right, we won’t have apprentices today and we certainly won’t have them tomorrow.”

• Ucatt activists in Oxfordshire held a minute’s silence on Tuesday for Altin Balla, a worker killed on a shopping centre site in Witney last month. It is understood that Balla was crushed by steel girders while operating a cherry picker.