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A wake-up call for skills reform

Construction has fallen behind other sectors when it comes to overhauling apprenticeships and training, adding further to the industry’s skills crisis – that’s the message from Graham Hasting-Evans, group managing director at NOCN. 

Clearly frustrated with the situation, Mr Hasting-Evans believes that if government and industry don’t face the problem head-on, the results could be catastrophic.

“For construction there is still a lack of new-style trailblazer apprenticeships that are ready for delivery, and that is going to hinder the industry going forward in terms of numbers and quality,” he says. “We just haven’t sufficiently reformed the apprenticeships within the construction sector, and this leaves us lagging behind other sectors. There has been very limited progress to date, with it taking an inordinate length of time through the government’s approval process.”

He adds: “There is hope that the new trailblazer apprenticeships for bricklayers and the rest of the traditional trades aren’t far away, but they’ve been working on these for three years and they’re still not ready for delivery.”

An interesting dilemma

Part of the issue is that construction has long embraced vocational training and, unlike other parts of the economy, hasn’t benefited from being able to start with a clean slate. “It’s an interesting dilemma,” Mr Hasting-Evans says. 

“The ones that have done really well, like banking and investment, I think it’s because they had nothing to start with, so no legacy in terms of the way in which it was done.”

In addition, other industries are structurally simpler than construction, involving far fewer roles. This makes it far easier to draw up career pathways, design apprenticeships and identify the necessary skills and qualifications, Mr Hasting-Evans argues. “They have fewer types of jobs and they were able to think through their career pathways in an easier way,” he says. “We are much more complicated as an industry. We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of different types of jobs and lots of specialist skills.”

Getting started early was also important because it allowed industries such as banking to make real progress before the establishment of the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s (ESFA) process. This process has now been taken over by the Institute for Apprenticeships, which is aiming to speed things up. The new agency was formed in April 2017 to drive forward the new apprenticeships. 

Bureaucratic nightmare

Unfortunately, the ESFA’s involvement in the process since 2013/14 led to a significant increase in bureaucracy, according to Mr Hasting-Evans. “Other industries had already made good progress before the ESFA was involved. By the time construction people started to get into it, the government bureaucracy had got much greater and slowed everything down.”

He is clear that until industry wrests back control over apprenticeships – and the creation of the new T-levels for that matter – progress will continue to be glacial. “I think the government needs to make the bureaucracy easier and much more employer-focused,” he says. “We’ve got to a situation where civil servants effectively control what is in the apprenticeships standard, what’s in the assessment plan and the funding. You have to ask: ‘Where is the driving seat for the employer?’”

In addition, ESFA funding for many vital construction skills and qualifications has been stripped back in the past year, in some areas by as much as two-thirds. “The ESFA has been cutting the funding for construction across the piece,” Mr Hasting-Evans says. “The worst has been the wet trades and the industry has quite rightly gone mad about it.

“We’ve now got massive issues in terms of funding these new apprenticeships and we don’t seem to be able to get engagement between the industry and government that works and makes sense. Some civil servants seem to think you can make those cuts and still produce a qualified bricklayer. It’s a nonsense.”

Between civil service bureaucracy, funding cuts and, admittedly, the industry’s seeming inability to take the lead, Mr Hasting-Evans concludes that the outlook in terms of solving the skills crisis isn’t particularly rosy. 

“I’m increasingly worried about where the skills are going to come from,” he says. “If there isn’t enough money for training, if there aren’t deliverable apprenticeships or clarity over the technical qualifications… you start to get really concerned.”

A wake-up call if ever there was one.

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