Construction Apprenticeships: the reality and what we can each do to make it better By Liz Holford

UK construction needs around 40,000 extra workers per annum to 2022 to meet demand. Perception is widespread that apprenticeships meet this need. However, in England, there were only 19,470 apprenticeship starts and 12,050 completions in 2017/18 – and in January 2019 there had been just 10,260 starts and 3,980 completions recorded for that financial year.

Why so few apprentices in a sector that employs 2.73 million people?

Employers describe difficulties in recruiting apprentices. They provide anecdotal evidence of poor perceptions of construction apprenticeships and careers amongst young people, and suggest that potential recruits are deterred by factors such as dirt, cold, physical work, early starts and drug and alcohol tests. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and many employers work hard to combat this perception.

Low wages might be a deterrent to attraction and retention. The legal minimum wage is currently just £3.90 an hour for younger, new apprentices. Progressive clients are increasingly advocating payment of Living Wage Foundation Living Wage for all.

The Federation of Master Builders blames the apprenticeship levy for a decline in apprenticeship numbers. Figures, though, were low prior to introduction of the levy – in 2015/16 there were, in England, 20,460 starts and just 8,360 completions the year before.

Evidence suggests there appear to be multiple barriers to employers creating apprenticeships. For example, the duration of most construction contracts are shorter than an apprenticeship, so creating apprenticeships represents risk more than opportunity to an employer. Educators consider courses and candidates differently to employers and might not offer people and services that employers need. Large infrastructure programmes have the time and budgets to set up tailored apprenticeship schemes. Perhaps for that reason they are successful in signalling high levels of aspiration or achievement in creating apprenticeships  (e.g. 1,000 on each of Crossrail and Hinckley Point, 2,000 on HS2, 100 on Thames Tideway Tunnel, 129 on the A14 bypass upgrade).

It’s notable that few stakeholders – even large infrastructure projects – track and report the progress of their apprentices. Perhaps this is because starter numbers are typically achieved by large contractors passing apprenticeship requirements down through their supply chains, so that sight of those apprentices is lost when the sub-contractors depart.

Why low levels of apprenticeship completions?

Employers claim that partially-skilled apprentices are tempted away to regular jobs that are better paid, so remain in the sector even though they don’t complete their apprenticeships. It’s hard to find data that either supports or challenges this perspective. CITB research in 2017, however, identified 200 ‘early leavers’ from construction apprenticeships (also courses and jobs) who left the sector altogether and probed why they did so. 28% said that they didn’t like [construction] or that it wasn’t for them. 37% – rising to just over half of those aged 20 plus- stated they left because of ‘getting a better job offer’, by which they meant better paid (59%), simply enjoying or preferring it better (32%), shorter hours (16%), more opportunities or better career progression (12%), being office-based (10%) or fitting their skill set better (10%).

Just 3% of apprentices starting in construction, planning and the built environment in 2016/17 were female. Percentages of apprentices who have a disability or are from BAME backgrounds are indicated to be very low, but this is not representative of the UK’s talent pool. People starting apprenticeships might simply not be the most suitable candidates for those roles and might be leaving earlier than more appropriate candidates would.

What causes this situation?

Anecdotes suggest that many apprentices are recruited through informal networks, without any advertised or robust competitive recruitment process, so that the apprentices recruited are from the same – unrepresentative – backgrounds as the people who recruit them. Where a recruitment process is used, it might be inappropriate to the role (e.g. requiring levels of writing skills to apply that are not required to do the job) or include conscious or unconscious barriers to diverse talent.

Ardmore Construction provides a simple route for young people to demonstrate that they are keen to work for the company, have a work placement and move into an apprenticeship. The diversity of Ardmore’s apprentices (and wider workforce) is closer to that of the communities within which it works compared to its peers, and apprenticeship completion rates are higher than industry average. For companies using conventional recruitment processes, HS2 Ltd advocates managing bias by removing indications of ethnicity, gender, age, or educational background from applications during review and shortlisting.

One action that every employer can begin now, to promote apprenticeships, is to make workplaces more welcoming and supportive for everyone, for example by managing-out bullying and non-inclusive languages and behaviours and using fair terms and conditions of employment. The experience of companies taking part in the Supply Chain Sustainability School FIR Programme indicates that this will enhance retention of current apprentices (and other staff) and boost the reputation of the employer so that talent attraction becomes easier.

A conclusion from the above? That every single person, company and stakeholder organisation (e.g. CITB, UK government) can do something to boost apprenticeships in construction. For the well-being of our sector, and the communities within which we work, let’s each do something.

What will your first action be?


Written by Liz Holford – May 2019

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