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A rocky start for apprentices

As the downturn takes hold, one of the hardest-hit sectors is house building.

With fewer and fewer houses being built the unsung victim is the building apprentice. Starting out in life and steadily learning the trade, many now face the daunting prospect of redundancy.

These are the forgotten victims of the current economic crisis.

So what’s gone wrong? For a few years the construction industry and in particular the private house building sector – which makes up about 14 per cent of the UK construction output
- was booming, as house prices and salaries continued to rise.

This had to stop eventually – and it has. Today, amidst the downturn, companies are desperately trying to cut costs and apprentices seem the obvious answer, but not necessarily the right one.

Rob Olorenshaw, group people director at Rok, believes that unless the industry addresses the issue quickly, the future looks bleak.

“Firms that are scaling back on their programmes are taking a dangerously short-term view of things,” he says. “Through apprenticeships we are able to mould individuals to reflect the characteristics and culture of the business.

“The programme has been incredibly successful and we boast a retention rate of more than 85 per cent.”

One way to prepare for a future shortage of qualified and skilled labour would be to encourage older workers into the industry.

Generally speaking this group of workers possesses many transferable skills suitable for a career in construction.

By entering the industry through general employment or an adult apprenticeship programme, they could certainly solve a potential short-term problem, but the long-term problem is more fundamental.

In recent years, the industry has successfully and rightfully positioned itself as a good career option, and colleges are awash with wannabe construction workers. The real problem lies squarely with the companies unprepared to offer the handson experience required.

To tackle the problem, skills secretary John Denham announced that the Government was establishing a clearinghouse system in partnership with ConstructionSkills to match apprentices at risk of redundancy with employers.

Addressing the TUC in September, Denham also reiterated the Government’s pledge to introduce 42,000 apprentices into the industry by 2012.

Bedfordshire-based carpentry subcontractor CMC believes that if individual apprentices choose to do so, many of these apprentices could be transferred to related sectors within the industry that are currently experiencing growth.

“As a business, we have about 25 apprentices undertaking their training at any one time. The sectors aren’t that different and many possess a huge amount of transferable skills.
“A bricklayer, for example, could easily become a carpenter if they have the desire to do so,” says Martyn Price, managing director at CMC.

He continues: “There is a cost involved in taking on apprentices, but this becomes zero when you take into account the return on investment that they provide.”

At the TUC in Brighton, industry unions backed a motion from UCATT calling for Government contracts to include clauses requiring contractors to provide craft-based apprenticeships.

Preston-based construction firm HT Forrest believes this is crucial if the industry is to move forward. Of the company’s 330 craftsmen, 20 per cent are on an apprenticeship programme.

Its chief executive Tim Forrest says: “Major contractors claim that they have hundreds of apprentices, but in relation to turnover, this isn’t necessarily a lot.

“There’s a lot of lip service paid, which doesn’t translate on site. In my opinion, the best way for the industry to meet its training targets is for there to be an enforced figure for the number of apprentices trained per million spend on public sector contracts.”

The Government task force has confirmed that it is looking at ways in which it can introduce some form of clause to ensure that a specific number of apprenticeships are included in future projects, but nothing has yet been confirmed.

With major players from the housing sector such as Persimmon and Barratt announcing that neither intends to take on new apprentices this year, this puts more pressure on the smaller contractors to go above and beyond their responsibilities.

“SMEs have taken their fair share of apprentices, but they’re not getting the work through Government framework agreements,” explains Mr Forrest.

“When it comes to the big jobs, these tend to be given to the national contractors, many of which are not doing enough to support apprentices.”

The newly formed task force headed by ConstructionSkills is still very much in its infancy. It is too early to predict what impact it will have in ensuring that the future talent pool is not lost to other industries.

With some experts predicting that the UK’s economy will begin to pick up in as little as a year, it’s fair to say that some of the larger and more established firms have perhaps reacted harshly to shortfalls in their order books.

By learning from the past, companies will see that only through a long-term approach can they ensure sustainable growth.

THE SKILLS SHORTAGE ISN’T GOING TO GO AWAY

Steve Geary, skills strategy director at ConstructionSkills, estimates that about 670 apprentices are at immediate risk of redundancy following successful completion of their courses, with a further 240 deemed a potential risk.

“While the vast majority of these cuts will be in the house building sector, there will be a handful of redundancies in other sectors too,” he says.

“It wasn’t that long ago when all the talk was about the so-called skills shortage and the need to attract more young people. Given that we have an ever-ageing workforce, the need to introduce more young people seems more important today than it ever was.

“Taking into account that since the 1990s, the sector has seen year-on-year growth – resurgence is inevitable. The question is when. When this happens, be it in six months or six years, the big question will then be where we plan to find the skilled labour to meet the demand.”

Mr Geary believes that unless we buck the current trend, we will certainly see another skills shortage, but points to one alarming difference to the ones of old.

“In the past, we had an influx of migrant workers when the industry was experiencing high volumes of work. This enabled us to plug the gap. Many of these workers are returning home where there is economic growth and may not return,” says Mr Geary.

“If this does happen, then the smarter firms will be the ones that hung onto their apprentices in the first place,” he adds.

By Andrew Scales