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Opening the door to a new generation

Everyone knows the ‘skills shortage’ is as much about too few interested employers as too few interested school leavers. By Jo Stephenson and Mark Alexander

It wasn’t long ago that apprenticeships were the best way of kick-starting your career. Veteran craftsmen passed on trade secrets to eager novices who in turn harboured ambitions of becoming the master.

But Britain’s cultural practice of passing on trade skills from generation to generation fell out of favour due, in part, to the rapid growth of the service sector but also to the expansion of university places.

In recent years however, perhaps in reaction to the growing cost of a university education, there is evidence of a resurgence in interest from young people to learn trades straight from leaving school.

Rob MacGregor, business support manager at ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council for construction, estimates that around 30,000 youngsters applied for apprentice positions in England alone in 2007.

Yet most went away empty handed due to employers’ reluctance to offer apprenticeships.

Mr MacGregor’s frustration is palpable. “I believe there is a genuine interest in passing on skills but some businesses are worried about taking the first step or are unsure about the future,” he says. “But the future is these young people - they are the lifeblood of our industry. If we don’t get them interested, we’ll have nothing.

“Young learners and parents are realising that university isn’t the only way into work. They want to get into our industry because it’s exciting and interesting with things like Wembley and the Olympics going on.”

Figures from ConstructionSkills show only around 8,500 apprentices were placed in 2007, approximately 1,000 down on 2006. Considering that estimates suggest 87,600 new recruits are needed in the industry per year between now and 2011, many in key trades such as bricklaying and roofing, it appears the industry is wasting an opportunity to help hit this target.

The mismatch has been picked up at the highest level. The Government has set ambitious targets for increasing the number of apprenticeships to 400,000 in England by 2020 and envisages the construction industry will play a key role in boosting numbers.

A Government-backed taskforce established in December last year by the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has set itself the goal of getting 10,000 more construction apprentices by 2012.

But their efforts risk coming to nothing unless more employers can be enticed to reach out to the young.

Why are employers so unwilling?

Brian Berry, the FMB’s director of external affairs, says the reluctance of employers is simply down to economics. He says: “Since the recession in the early 1990s they have tended to subcontract and not take on apprentices.”

In sectors such as rail and road-building, stop-start investment over the years has led to uncertainty and firms naturally don’t want to take on apprentices if they’re not sure how much work they will have.

It is not just subcontracting which is to blame, however. Other issues appear to work against Government plans to boost apprentice places.

The FMB taskforce has discovered that one of the main issues putting off firms is that insurance companies are reluctant to cover under-18s on construction sites.

Another is the sheer cost of taking on the trainees. The FMB reckons it costs £12,000 for the first year of training an apprentice, but grants only cover about £2,000 - leaving a £10,000 bill. There is also the fear that apprentices could be poached by a rival.

One solution could be to offer firms incentives to start training apprentices or expand what they are already doing, says Julia Evans, chief executive of the National Federation of Builders. But Mr MacGregor believes complaints about costs are short-sighted and outdated, especially from larger firms better placed to support apprentices.

“Cost does come into it, but the support you can get these days is substantial,” he says. “There are two options. The first is training someone the way you want and the second is taking a Programme-Led Apprenticeship (PLA), where you get a competent worker from day one who will hopefully generate business for you.”

As well as offering PLAs, which require a shorter-term commitment from employers - since participants initially complete a full-time college-based construction course - ConstructionSkills also offers grants of up to £8,000 over three years.

As well as the impact of work cycles, insurance and cost fears, it may be that the employers are also unwilling to offer apprenticeships as they are unaware of the full effects of the vocational skills shortage due to immigrant labour.

John Knowles, principal lecturer in construction management at London South Bank University says to rely on such labour is unsustainable. “If Germany gets stronger and construction takes off, Poles and Lithuanians may prefer to work there because they can go home at the weekends.”

The Construction Confederation agrees foreign workers are a short-term answer. “The best solution in the long-term is for funds to be invested in training the domestic workforce and so increasing the pool of available permanent skilled workers,” says a spokesman.

Lack of employer commitment to skilling up a future workforce certainly appears to be a major problem, yet it’s not the only one. Construction is still rarely a first choice of career for many, especially for women.

It is still seen by some as a dumping ground for those with no or few qualifications, says Joe Johnson, director of training at the Civil Engineers Contractors Association.

“It’s seen as a ‘mud and boots’ instead of a rewarding career,” adds Brian Berry. He is certain government education policy has been partly to blame.

An obsession with universities

“Over the last 20 years there has been an obsession about young people going to university and it’s partly down to that British attitude that it’s not acceptable to use your hands and bias towards white collar jobs,” he says.

But Guy Hazlehurst, deputy director of training at ConstructionSkills says it is unfair to suggest Government snobbery has not helped. “There is a big emphasis from this Government on skilling the workforce to improve business performance,” he says.

Certainly, it seems ministers’ appreciation of vocational qualifications is improving. There is now a much greater focus on qualifications such as diplomas and recognition that if the UK wants to compete in international markets then it needs a skilled workforce.

But many industry leaders agree there is still significant work to be done around improving the sector’s image and when and how people get to know about it. It is vital to catch people when they’re young but most acknowledge career guidance is poor.

This is not helped by the fact that there are so many routes into the industry and so many different qualifications that careers advisers could never hope to know about them all.

Joe Johnson believes the industry needs more Richard Branson-style champions to inspire young people to join the world of construction.

ConstructionSkills has been testing out a scheme along these lines to boost the construction industry’s image. Construction Ambassadors sees experienced construction employees going into schools to promote the sector.

Inspirational leaders

Part of the problem however is that construction has too few champions as recognisable as Branson. People can name renowned architects such as Richard Rogers, but few young people outside the industry would be able to namecheck the likes of Ray O’Rourke.

Employers may be saving up problems for the future by not taking on enough apprentices. But they could be creating even more problems if they are not thinking about what new types of trade training they will need to meet the building demands of the future.

As well as more apprenticeships needed now in the more traditional ‘biblical trades’, companies will eventually need to train young people in niche trades linked to advances in building design, including specialist glazing and cladding and those linked to policy changes like zero carbon homes.

But Guy Hazlehurst says it is vital to make the distinction between current skills shortages and future skills gaps.

“We may need to look at whether the existing workforce has the skills we need to build the buildings of the future,” he says. “It’s about making sure the workforce of 2011, 2012 has a different skills set.”

ConstructionSkills is attempting to get to grips with some of these issues by developing new ways to offer training that suits the modern industry. For example, it is involved in establishing national skills academies based around major construction projects. These will ensure employers, clients and training bodies work in partnership to offer the training that is needed.

Christine Townley, director of the Construction Youth Trust, believes however that schemes to either fill current skills shortages or future skills gaps will never truly work unless employers are enthusiastic about not just opening up apprentice places, but actively supporting young people to stay in the industry.

The trust has been part of various projects that have helped young people find a future in construction that might otherwise have passed them by.

For example, the London Development Agency-funded Capital Xperience project saw sixth form students from schools in the five Olympic boroughs take part in workshops aimed at raising awareness of opportunities in construction. They then went on paid four-week summer work placements, which led to some completely revising their career plans.

Ms Townley says getting young people interested is only half the battle, especially those who may lack confidence or support. They need employers’ support and mentoring.

She says: “It’s not just about pointing someone in the direction of a job, it’s also about having someone there to welcome them in.”

A welcome too few young people appear to be getting at the moment.

The rewards of investing in the next generation

Brickwork and stone specialist firm Marlborough transports its apprentices around projects in a minibus branded The Next Generation. It is tongue in cheek but still an indication of the importance the firm places on training up young people.

The Leeds-based company has taken on apprentices since launching more than 10 years ago. “Taking kids from school and putting them through an apprenticeship is investing in the industry,” says managing director Paul Donnelly.

The firm has 16 apprentices at the moment. It also runs open days for potential employees and their parents and has an experienced site supervisor as a full-time mentor to apprentices. Apprenticeships offer the chance to gain basic NVQ qualifications and core skills.

But the company also encourages recruits to gain further qualifications, learn the latest techniques and work with new products.

“We explain that getting a skill isn’t necessarily the end and there are routes to management if you start with a trade,” adds Mr Donnelly, who adds that it’s vital to pay apprentices properly.

Smaller firms can also take on apprentices, too. Stephen Collins is a director at BMS Electrical which currently employs 14 staff, four of whom are apprentices. He says the system gives him a chance to shape the ideal workers for his business: “If we train them ourselves they get into our way of working rather than learning from someone else who does things differently. It makes perfect sense.”

Mr Collins has a stark warning for those wary of taking on apprentices. “If we don’t train them, who else will? If we don’t provide apprenticeship places, in years to come there will be no trades left because there’ll be no apprentices to follow through.”

Barry Boxall agrees. He is managing director of the building and facilities division at Crispin and Borst and is himself a graduate of the apprenticeship system. Like Mr Collins, he is critical of those who don’t support apprenticeships. “If you take on apprentices you’re supplying your own craftsmen for the future and doing something for the industry as a whole.”

Women need more encouragement

Last year Janet Shelley, founder of Women Builders, was awarded an MBE for her services to the construction industry. Yet her 14-year-old son still thinks women “don’t know anything about cars or construction, but do know about cleaning or ironing”.

“He must get it from the media or school because I’m certainly not someone who’s scared of damaging their nails,” says Ms Shelley. The idea construction is a man’s world still lingers – but it’s not just down to blokes.

“A lot of discrimination about women coming into construction is from other women,” says Ms Shelley. It seems unlikely many mums will be encouraging their daughters to go into construction then, even if their girls are keen to learn practical skills and are willing to put up with horrible on-site toilets.

Sadly, the percentage of women in construction has stuck at 10 to 12 per cent for the last 10 years, with very few women in trades. Only one per cent of construction apprentices are female. Outdated perceptions of construction and women’s ability to be a part of it are an issue. But careers advice to younger girls is “vague” at best, Ms Shelley adds.


  • Currently only four per cent of the 185,000 construction companies in the UK employ an apprentice

  • Of the 63 companies that employ over 500 people, only eight employ an apprentice on a regular basis

  • ConstructionSkills placed about 8,500 apprentices in 2007, about 1,000 less than in 2006 mainly because of fewer placements offered by employers in England

  • The Government’s overall aim is to increase apprenticeships in England to 400,000 across all sectors by 2020

  • Construction has been identified as one area where there is scope for the biggest growth in the number of apprenticeships

  • The Government would like to see 20 per cent more construction employers take on apprentices in England

Source: Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; Federation of Master Builders; ConstructionSkills

A challenging target for the next three years

  • The industry needs to recruit 87,600 new recruits per year between now and 2011 to meet demand

  • The highest increases will be needed in trade skills like bricklaying, cladding and roofing, painting and decorating, scaffolding and wood trades

  • That means recruiting 12,650 wood workers and joiners, 5,120 bricklayers, 4,380 painters and decorators, 2,000 roofers, and 1,180 scaffolders each year

Source: Blueprint for UK Construction Skills 2007 – 2011, ConstructionSkills

The Skills shortage is starting to bite

  • Nearly 80 per cent of contractors experienced difficulties recruiting skilled staff during the third quarter of 2007

  • Plumbers and steel benders were the hardest to find. More than half of building contractors found vacancies for plasterers and bricklayers difficult to fill, followed by carpenters and electricians

  • More than a quarter of contractors said recruitment difficulties had prompted them to turn down work in the third quarter of 2007

  • 29 per cent reported labour shortages had led to late delivery of work

Source: Construction Industry Trade Survey November 2007, Construction Federation and Construction Products Association

Making the most of your apprentice

There are a few simple guidelines that can help new apprentices fit into their new role and provide the basis of a rewarding working relationship. Generally speaking, it’s important to treat the apprentice firmly but fairly, providing them with the guidance and respect you would give to other employees. It’s also beneficial to see apprentices as an integral part of the business rather than stop-gap measure.

To ease the process, ConstructionSkills has come up with a shortlist of action points:

  1. Before the apprentice sets foot on site, you should consider their needs and the support they will need. It’s also crucial to negotiate terms and conditions upfront, including pay, working hours and how the apprentice will travel to the sites. If basic working expectations are agreed before the apprentice starts, it will avoid many problems in the future.

  2. A simple induction process will help new recruits settle into the job and provides an opportunity to explain what is expected from them. For instance, take the apprentice through the history of the company, give them a tour of the site and introduce them to safety equipment.

  3. The last step is to have a clear review system in place. Drop-outs are most common during the first 10 weeks, so holding a review after six weeks is a good way of identifying problems early on.