Apprenticeships need reform not just targets if chasm between sector’s need for skilled workers and its record on training is to be bridged.
Builders say the struggle to find the right people is holding back growth in the construction sector and pushing up costs, perhaps nowhere are the warnings as loud as in the construction sector after it shed thousands of skilled workers in the downturn.
Business surveys suggest the demand for subcontractors is soaring as vacancies remain unfilled. The average advertised salary in the sector is up 14% on a year ago to £38,813, according to the jobs search engine Adzuna. The number of vacancies is up 28% on the year – beating the 26% increase Adzuna reports across all UK industries.
The skills shortage is something the project manager on Shorter’s site knows all too well. Stuart Millichamp says about 70 of the 100 contractors working on this apartment building are from outside the UK.
“I can’t emphasise enough that these guys are very good at their jobs and we have a long way to go to ensure we get people coming into the industry that are the same kind of standard,” he says. But it’s worrying for the British economy isn’t it, that at some point in the future we will have no one coming into the industry and will be completely reliant on others.”
Millichamp, who is project manager for the construction company Willmott Dixon, says the average age of a heating engineer is over 40 and that the building trade urgently needs young recruits like Shorter. But finding the funds and time to train them remains a challenge. Subcontractors such as plumbing companies outbid each other to get work with bigger firms like Willmott Dixon, which means margins are tight.
“The state of construction in the last five or six year’s means people don’t have the means to invest in the trade anymore,” says Millichamp. “If they are putting in apprentices that need to have people with them all the time, which is not being cost efficient.”
At the same time, there are 943,000 young people in the UK who are not in education, employment or training.
K10’s chief executive, Andrew Purvis, said:
“One in 10 jobs in Britain is in construction and there is all this building going on and all these young people out of work,” says Purvis.
Completing a construction apprenticeship guarantees more than just a job, he says. It opens up a career with rising earning potential – even if it is hard work to stick at.
Project to the value of £1bn are in the pipeline for London and the south east for 2014-17. A report in November says 20% more workers will be needed to meet the pipeline than in 2010-13.
The industry knows such local schemes will only go some way to tackling the chronic skills shortage. But the latest government push on apprenticeships is encouraging, says the Federation of Master Builders (FMB).
The skills minister, Nick Boles, has unveiled plans to create 3m apprenticeships by 2020. Brian Berry, FMB’s chief executive, welcomed that target but pointed out reforms would be needed to achieve it.
“As construction accounts for about 7% of GDP, it means our sector should be responsible for around 210,000 of these apprenticeships, which equates to 42,000 a year over the next parliament. Given that the industry only achieved 16,000 in 2013/2014, there is a lot of work to be done,” he says.
The trade groups say that with almost 40% of construction output coming from the public sector, government must only award contracts to those who take on apprentices.
“In the past, there has been evidence to suggest that pledges by firms to train apprentices have not transpired. Government needs to get better at policing its contractual stipulations if we are to really crank up the level of apprenticeships via the public sector,” says Berry.