Mark Leeson is operations director at property and construction consultancy McBains
The news that for the first time in six years there’s been an increase in the number of apprentices starting careers in construction is welcome. More than 26,000 apprenticeships began in the year to July 2022 – that’s 6,000 more than the previous 12 months.
“The current apprenticeships programme is too confusing for much of the industry”
But these numbers represent just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next five years, the Construction Industry Training Board estimates that more than 40,000 people will need to join the sector every year to meet demand.
Fewer EU nationals and the withdrawal of older workers from the labour market have shrunk the potential industry workforce, with latest figures showing the number of vacancies at the end of 2022 standing at 46,000 – almost double the pre-pandemic levels.
The industry has never really recovered from the exodus of European workers after Brexit, and a significant number may have taken early retirement after COVID. Meanwhile, although the latest apprentice numbers may be rising, apprenticeships have been stagnating.
That’s why the chancellor, in this month’s Budget, could look at reforming the incentives for taking on new apprentices. An employer can recruit an apprentice, but the fact is that it will take around two years before they are fully workplace-ready. In the current economic climate, that’s a big ask for many employers, when the young apprenticeship payment stands at only up to £2,000.
We’d like to see other simplifications. The current apprenticeships programme is too confusing for much of the industry, unused funds cannot be transferred, and funds cannot be spent to cover the administrative costs of hiring apprentices, which can be significant for smaller firms.
Embracing the future
But the industry needs to do more, too. Construction has taken for granted how to attract young people for too long. We don’t just have to think about attracting more people into traditional roles either – as we move towards net zero, skills in decarbonisation, data, digital and analytics will be in high demand. This is young people’s territory, and so the industry needs to create opportunities that attract the best talent in these areas. How exciting it should be to young people to be able to see the part they could play in construction to meet the challenge of the climate emergency we are currently facing.
For a start, the industry could make more of its growing use of cutting-edge tech like robots, drones, artificial intelligence and augmented/virtual reality. There are still many young people that think the industry is stuck in the past.
And because the shortage of current high-skilled employees is a result of years of underfunding in the construction industry, it needs to do more, too – for example, companies could sponsor learning programmes for young people at further education institutions, enabling students to develop knowledge and transferable skills for a career in a digital, sustainable and collaborative built environment. Such investment could pay dividends, giving those companies first-hand access to those with a real passion and desire to progress, potentially leading to apprenticeships within their business.
The talent is out there – the government needs to increase its effort to help construction to recruit, but the industry needs to do more to attract it, too.