How can we stop apprentices leaving construction?

28 January 2020 | By Kevin O’Connor

Durkan apprentice Chidi Nnebe went on to win Young Builder of Year 2016

Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week, Kevin O’Connor asks why so many apprentices do not complete their training – and what the industry can do to retain them.

Kevin O’Connor

Despite overall numbers falling in recent years, the construction industry is holding firm in the number of apprentices it recruits. According to new government figures, in 2018/19, 23,000 apprentices started work in the construction and planning sectors, the fifth highest of any sector. Our annual intake hasn’t dropped since 2011/12.

These figures are unsurprising, as we benefit from apprenticeships more than most. Many senior construction managers started out this way, and it remains a well-established and popular path. Moreover, it gives us an opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of disadvantaged residents in the areas we work in – allowing us to provide jobs within the community, even for those with little or no experience.

While we’re seeing the uptake of apprenticeships remain steady in our sector, not all other sectors are having the same success. It therefore comes as no surprise the theme for National Apprenticeship Week (3-7 February) is ‘Look Beyond’ – calling on young people to look beyond traditional routes into employment and challenge the preconceptions around apprenticeships.

This year’s theme has a particularly pertinent meaning. We need to think long term and address our declining apprenticeship retention rates. The Skills Commission says more than 30% of people who start apprenticeships do not complete them. While our sector has no problem attracting apprentices, we are struggling to retain them.

So, how can we change this? The answer is: ‘Look Beyond’. Rather than watching apprentices succeed or fail in their first role, we should think about where in the industry they will thrive.

“All our apprentices have a dedicated mentor to oversee their progression, to provide guidance and support, and work with them to find a job best suited to them.”

We know apprentices don’t often have a career path planned out – they don’t know where they will be best suited or what they will enjoy until they start. Some may well go on to build careers in the same field they train in, but for those who don’t, it’s our role to help guide and advise them into areas they may be better suited.

This is more important than ever with the growth of digitalisation in the industry set to transform traditional roles. It requires new ways of thinking and working, and today’s digital native apprentices are crucial to unlocking its potential. 

The key to retention lies in communication. Ongoing dialogue between mentors, site managers, college tutors and of course, with the apprentices themselves means issues are identified and progress is tracked.  It might seem obvious, but patience is also vital. It’s easy to forget that this is often their first experience of the working world and with all new things, it can take time to settle in.

At Durkan we understand this and that’s why all our apprentices have a dedicated mentor to oversee their progression, to provide guidance and support, and work with them to find a job best suited to them.

Positive steps are also being taken in education. The new study programme available to fund 16- or 18-year-old apprentices to degree or master’s level has the potential to offer wide-ranging opportunities. So by 22, an apprentice could have a degree as well as years of onsite experience. It’s early days, but this programme could be the most positive change in construction apprenticeships in the last 15 years. 

Apprentices are looking for a chance to learn, to try interesting roles and importantly, carve out a challenging and rewarding career. The diversity of opportunity the construction sector offers means we can provide that. Helping our apprentices follow the path they are most suited to is key to unlocking retention rates and addressing our industry targets.

Kevin O’Connor is head of social responsibility and inclusion at Durkan


I applaud companies like Durkan for their progressive work and steps they are taking - it is an example that put Tier 1 contractors to shame who rely on Subs to do their work, all lead by the accounants and non-practically trained Graduate Managers to run their projects.The issue is that most SME's are at fault who rely on a grandfather rights form of training rather than a formal competance based college led training. - That the courses and training are shorter with little site time means we are rushng through our trainess/apprentices rather than grounding them properly. Tht has the effect of diluting the position and not making it 'sexy' to the current generation. We also need to capture them at 14 i.e. pre GSE and not as they leave at 18 - and that is a whole new argument for which we have government to blame.

Mike Smith, 3 February 2020

I'm disappointed to read that apprentices are still leaving after, perhaps, a relatively short time on their apprenticeships. I worked for CITB in the 60's/70's and was tasked with trying to establish the reasons apprentices left. I felt then, and still do think, that there is not enough information given at school career meetings about the advantages of working in the construction industry - something I'm sure should be addressed and, in discusing it, emphasis should be placed on what an apprenticeship entails and how it benefits long term if they complete the course. Durkan certainly seem to have the right approach!

Hazel Howell-Smith, 3 February 2020

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