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Construction's future will remain bleak without action on apprenticeships

Sustaining a highly qualified future workforce requires urgent and immediate action to address a growing shortfall in apprenticeships, a growing skills gap and a lack of incentives for employers to hire apprenticeships, writes Iain Macdonald.

With its pronounced risk level and specialist skill set, the construction industry is dependent on a workforce with the appropriate qualifications and competencies, typically gained via an apprenticeship.

However, future skills may be in short supply, as apprenticeship training across the construction sector has been a victim of the economic downturn, with the recession forcing many employers to downsize schemes to train apprentices. 

As the primary source of qualified labour for this high-value sector, what are the long-term implications of cutting back on apprenticeships?

Ageing workforce

Taking the example of the electrical installation sector and its advanced apprenticeship, these long-term implications could be serious. ConstructionSkills estimates that the UK needs to recruit an average of 1,670 additional electricians every year between now and 2015 simply to meet current depressed levels of demand. 

But a snapshot of the sector’s current skills base reveals the average electrician is aged 41, and nearly a fifth of the skilled workforce is close to retirement at aged 56 or above – suggesting this figure will soar over the next five to 20 years. 

Current figures show apprentice completions down by 25 per cent on last year, while new apprenticeship starts are down 20 per cent. 

When compounded over a number of years such figures are depressing, and we know these are not uncommon across the wider construction sector.

Many major firms reduced their investment in apprentice training some years ago as they moved away from a direct employment model and the majority of employers who would otherwise have hired apprentices – mainly SMEs – are not now in a position to take them on. 

While there are indications some large firms are beginning to change tack, rising costs combined with fierce competition have caused margins to fall, which have made for difficult trading conditions and business failures throughout the sector. The main worry for SMEs is having enough contracts to provide work for existing staff. 

Sustainable labour

Overseas-trained labour might plug the gap in the short term, but qualifications are varied and operatives are often unsuitable without further training. They are also transient, going wherever there is work and adding little to the UK’s skills base in the process. 

There is an urgent need to stimulate planning for the training of a future, sustainable workforce. The immediate launch of government infrastructure projects that will provide employers with a strong incentive to hire apprentices is perhaps one way forward. If there are others, we need to hear about them – and soon.

Iain Macdonald is head of education and training at the Electrical Contractors’ Association

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