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Driving up the quality of apprenticeships – why the government must hold its nerve

People blame the skills shortage on the construction industry’s image problem, but where the problem really lies is with the image of construction apprenticeships.

For years now, more and more small construction employers have bemoaned the watering down of construction apprenticeships – five-year apprenticeships have dwindled down into two-year schemes and the standard of training provision has dropped off a cliff.

At present, two-thirds of construction apprentices are trained by SMEs and, by and large, these firms are champions of high-quality training. A small firm needs well-rounded and broadly skilled tradespeople who can turn their hands to a wide range of complicated tasks.

But for too long, many large contractors have been churning out low skilled apprentices who, when qualified, can’t cut the mustard within an SME firm and they are tarnishing the image of apprenticeships more broadly. This fact, combined with poor training provision by many providers, is putting small employers off training apprentices altogether. The skills timebomb is ticking ever more loudly, which is the last thing we need.

Big contractor kick-back

That’s why our members were so thrilled to finally have a chance to intervene and take a leading role in improving the quality of apprenticeships.

As part of the government’s trailblazer initiative, aimed at boosting the quality of apprenticeships across all sectors, a group of FMB members applied to ministers to develop two new standards in bricklaying and plastering – core trades in the construction industry.

Our members entered this process with bucketloads of goodwill and enthusiasm, but if the truth be known, their positive attitude hasn’t always been reciprocated.

“It’s clear that our group of micro-employers being given ownership of these two crucial occupations has ruffled some feathers among major contractors, to say the very least”

Most of the other construction trailblazer groups are led or dominated by the major contractors, which is a shame given it’s the small companies that do the bulk of the training.

It’s clear that our group of micro-employers being given ownership of these two crucial occupations has ruffled some feathers, to say the very least.

The extent of the kick-back became clear when the larger contractors realised that we’re developing high-quality apprenticeships that will take three years to complete, without a cheaper and quicker option of just two years.

Yes, our standards are both deemed level 3, as opposed to level 2, but that’s beside the point. What we’re clear on is that these standards will reflect what we believe is required to be competent in these trades.

If the individual successfully completes their apprenticeship, they’ll have the broad range of skills that will allow them to develop their career in either a small or large construction company.

If the major contractors want a cheap-to-train and low-skilled brickie, they can put them on a two-year NVQ – but let’s not call them an apprentice.

Resisting pressure

So far, the government has been very supportive of our position and we’re grateful for this – I just hope that ministers hold their nerve.

The three million target by 2020 is weighing heavily around their necks and will be challenging to meet, especially if the new levy has some unintended consequences, as we fear it might.

However, it’s vital the government doesn’t bow to any pressure from the big boys to water down quality to allow faster and cheaper apprenticeships to be developed.

In the end, if we improve quality, in time we’ll also nail the quantity issue as we finally cure the image problem – let’s make the term ‘apprenticeship’ really mean something once more.

Brian Berry is the chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders

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