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Government must act carefully on apprentice reform

Like a black cloud, the skills shortage looms large over the industry.

Indeed, the latest statistics from the CITB foresee the need for 200,000 new entrants by 2019.

While construction output is steadily increasing in both the SME sector and the industry more broadly, if we don’t have enough people to carry out the work, we simply won’t be able to deliver what is required.

Increasing the quantity and quality of apprenticeships is key to addressing the growing skills gap in construction; that’s why I was so pleased when Demos announced it would be convening a ‘Commission on Apprenticeships’.

Demos is one of Britain’s leading cross-party think tanks and will be providing research support to this new commission as well as drafting the final report, which we expect to be published by the end of this year.

Concerning proposals

The FMB submitted written evidence to the commission but was also invited to put forward two FMB members to provide oral evidence in a select committee-style hearing.

Maria Seabright of Greendale Construction and Julian Weightman of the Border Craft Group gave evidence to the panel of commissioners during a session in parliament last month, alongside three other representatives from the SME sector.

“I can’t fathom why the government has so far refused to re-think its apprenticeship funding proposals when it know what the consequences will be”

It was striking, yet perhaps unsurprising, that each witness raised many of the same points, despite never having spoken to one another previously.

The most important of these points was around funding reform for apprenticeships, which is something the FMB has been lobbying on since the findings of the Richard Review were first published in November 2012.

The SME representatives told the commissioners what we already know: if the funding reform proposals are implemented as proposed, the vast majority of SMEs and micro firms will no longer train apprentices.

When you consider that two-thirds of all construction apprentices are currently trained by the micro businesses, this is extremely concerning.

Fresh pair of eyes

Yes, employers do want more say when it comes to training provision, particularly in relation to the content and location of the training, but the proposed system of upfront payments will act as a major barrier to the very smallest firms.

The FMB members told the commissioners straight: anything that puts pressure on cashflow or increases bureaucracy is a non-starter for a small firm.

Indeed, I can’t fathom why the government has so far refused to re-think its apprenticeship funding proposals when it know what the consequences will be.

The former planning minister Nick Boles took over from Matt Hancock as skills minister in the latest government reshuffle and we have very recently been told by his officials that he is looking at the issue with a “fresh pair of eyes”.

I sincerely hope so, as the stakes could not be higher.

If the government attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all method of construction apprenticeship funding it will diminish apprenticeship numbers, undermine the construction recovery and ultimately destabilise wider economic growth.

Brian Berry is chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders

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