Young people are flocking to college construction courses, but all they find is barriers to the career they’d hoped for. Elaine Knutt asks what can be done for the lost generation.
When Bolton-based contractor Seddon advertised 70 apprenticeship places to celebrate its 70th anniversary earlier this year, it was overwhelmed by 1,400 applications. But only a third were post-GCSE school-leavers seeking their first foothold in construction. Instead, many applicants already held technical diplomas from Further Education colleges in bricklaying, joinery or plastering. But they’d never had a placement on a construction site or experienced site life and were viewed — by Seddon and many other industry employers — as no more job-ready or productive than when they left school.
Seddon’s director Nicola Hodkinson spoke out about what she saw as a gross waste in financial and emotional resources: the £10,000 in college funding from the government’s Skills Funding Agency (SFA) for each student completing a diploma that didn’t qualify them for a job; and the dented enthusiasm and commitment of the youngsters who’d enrolled on full-time courses with the promise of being eligible for jobs then realising they’d been sold false promises.
In West London, dry-lining contractor Astins is in full agreement. “The break between the FE colleges and employers was one of the reasons we decided to do our own thing,” says Justin Hopkins, head of the Astins Institute which trains 10 apprentices a year. “The FE colleges train people in a way that doesn’t prepare them to work efficiently on site. And they just don’t have the remit to link courses to potential opportunities in employment so they don’t do enough to link programmes with employers — it’s all driven by results at the end of the two-year course. We deliberately sat down and created our own training programme rather than attempting to recruit our trainees from the colleges.”
There are 60,000-70,000 students enrolled on full-time construction courses in universities and FE colleges — excluding apprentices and non-apprenticed trainees studying at colllege on day or block release — far exceeding the number of apprentices the industry is training (see table below). Of course, many students will be attending college because they haven’t been able to find an apprenticeship: in 2011, the CITB-ConstructionSkills-run website bconstructive.co.uk registered around 19,000 enquiries compared to the 5,248 apprenticeship places it could offer.
But there is nevertheless growing awareness that the FE sector is absorbing a high proportion of the available funding for construction training, yet steering a course too far removed from the needs of both employers and young people.
Levels of engagement with local construction firms vary, but many colleges just aren’t proactive enough about getting students into employment or work placements. Courses don’t prepare students for the realities of construction sites or even the basics of health and safety and there’s a bias towards the traditional trades and sketchy provision for new technologies.
“It’s bums on seats,” agrees Geoff Lister, chair of the Cross Industry Construction Apprentice Task Force, set up by industry and government in 2007 to increase employer engagement in apprenticeship policy. “Thousands of young people are taking full-time courses and get a diploma, a technical certificate, who’ll never get a job. There’s no work-based learning at the end of it, and frankly, I wouldn’t employ them. The standards of the FE colleges vary, but some colleges just don’t have the depth of knowledge within their construction departments,” says Lister.
Now, however, there are hopes that the issue is starting to be addressed. Late last month, CITBConstructionSkills chief executive Mark Farrar reported that further education minister John Hayes had agreed “in principle” to address the problem, indicating there could be a revised formula for distributing the Skills Funding Agency budget to allow his organisation a greater role in establishing training pathways to serve young people and the industry.
The increasing gulf between what the economy and employers needs and what FE colleges are offering was raised in a June report by the Local Government Association (LGA), which looked at the mismatch between FE course provision and job vacancies in a range of employment areas. It uncovered anomalies such as the oversupply of leisure, travel and tourism students in Nottingham (1,140 trainees compared to 60 jobs) and the lack of hairdressers in Windsor and Maidenhead (20 trainees versus 43 jobs). But in Cambridge, it found only 50 young people training in construction, despite the volume of new development in the area.
The report blames FE “colleges receiving funds directly from Whitehall [the Skills Funding Agency is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] based on studying and passing qualifications rather than on job outcomes, particularly local work. This in turn is resulting in thousands of students being steered onto popular courses that they can easily pass but that are unlikely to help them into future employment.”
The LGA instead proposes a “localist” approach to training and employment strategy, creating local partnerships of local authorities, schools, colleges and employers to match skills training with local job pipelines, which it says would “reduce disengagement, slash the level of skills mismatch and save public money”.
One construction training insider takes a cynical view of the situation. “Colleges are run as quasi-private companies — they’ll get £5,000 a year for a full-time student, and only £1,000 for a part-time student studying for an NVQ. Colleges will seek to maximise their income to stay in business, and will recruit until there’s no more room and the workshops are full. But we’ve heard of cases where they’re squeezing the day release students out of the workshops — the real apprentices. It’s bonkers. No one has really had control of the FE colleges since 1992 — the Learning and Skills Council tried but couldn’t.”
Following the LGA survey, the Construction Youth Trust, which campaigns to improve access for young people to construction careers, has also spoken out about the lack of joined-up provision. “Young people apply for a course they fancy, the college lays on as many places as they can fill, but they’re not doing people any favours. Young people are not being advised about areas where there are skills gaps — our research suggests these exist in scaffolding and drylining — instead they’re being asked what they want to do, then offered that provision,” says operations director Jo Hills.
“It’s kind to the young person, but it’s not kind to the economy,” she continues. “The issue is about supplying a skilled workforce for our future. It’s very short-sighted not to be creating a strategic approach, or we face the prospect of mass unemployment together with skills shortages. There has to be a partnership approach, a connection between training and employment, with better linkage with colleges on a local level, and awareness of jobs coming forward.”
Youth unemployment stands at an unprecedented rate of around 1 million, or 22% of under-25s. At the same time, four years of declining output in construction have slashed the number of apprenticeship starts — the table above shows the total figures for all managing agencies funded by the Skills Funding Agency, while the number of apprenticeships where CITB-ConstructionSkills is the managing agent has roughly halved, from 10,800 in 2007 to 5,248 in 2011. At the same time, there’s widespread agreement that the industry needs to create more apprentice places — to deliver an agreed “Golden Standard” in training and development, build employers’ own capacity for the future, and guard against future skills gaps.
Part of the problem is a cohort of SME employers who are not taking on apprentices, often arguing that the costs of subsidising an under-productive employee for two or three years is prohibitive. There is some justification for shying away from the cost: according to statistics on the BIS website, a three-year construction apprenticeship will cost the employer £26,000 (calculated as total costs minus productivity gains while the equivalent cost in retail is only £3,000.
At the same time, there are calls for major contractors to take on more apprentices — according to Geoff Lister, only 12 out of the 32 largest UK contractors employ apprentices directly, accounting for just 1,500 apprentices last year. Additional major contractors will be indirectly involved in apprentice training, but will expect their supply chain members to actually employ the young people.
As the economy continues to flatline, it’s probably unrealistic to ask the industry to invest more in creating apprenticeships. But the prospect of redistributing the available funds could offer a new way forward. “There’s a pot of money, and it’s how we can get more full-time qualified persons for that money. I want to see more getting round the table, or the people that are being let down will be the youngsters,” says Nicola Hodkinson at Seddon.
That “table” is in the office of further education and training minister John Hayes, who held a summit on construction apprenticeships with organsiations including CITB ConstructionSkills, the UKCG, the CBI Construction Council and the CCATF earlier this summer. The agenda included procurement-driven apprentice training, where it’s difficult for contractors that are often on site for less than the duration of an apprenticeship to deliver local authorities’ ambitions on training (click here for more). UKCG head of policy Simon Nathan comments: “We hope this will be the start of a continuing discussion on how we can deal with the specific issues.”
Now it’s hoped that Hayes will get to grips with integrating training provision from FE colleges and employer-led schemes. If he’s serious about tackling the problem, he could look at a number of proposals already tabled.
The CCATF and the FMB have piloted a scheme called Pathway to Construction which offers FE students a work placement after their first year. If the employer then offers an apprenticeship, the first year’s college study then counts towards their apprenticeship qualification.
In effect, the employer gets the advantages of an emotionally more mature apprentice who arrives with basic technical skills, but only employs them for the second of two years (which is CITB levy-funded). It’s a solution that could appeal to smaller contractors worried about the risk and expense of taking on untried 16-year-old school leavers. Seddon’s training manager Roy Cavanagh agrees: “If you started again [with the system], you could start them in college then move them on to sites. That would also help members who can’t afford to get an apprentice.”
A new model
Lister also proposes a pre-apprenticeship FE course for school leavers, a new model to sit alongside apprenticeships, where institutions would offer a one-year Pathway to Construction programmes for school-leavers, including a six-week workplace induction. “Students would work on different sites, get a feel for the industry, then make a decision about what trade they’d like to do,” explains Lister.
Construction workload is still in decline, and talk of a recovery seems like wishful thinking. But even at reduced volumes, the work needs to be done by a well-trained workforce. And as Seddon’s Nicola Hodkinson points out, the risk of being overtaken by skills shortages and inflation on the upturn is only too clear. “We’ll keep training our apprentices, but our supply chain contractors will find it difficult to get people, end up paying more, and then the costs go up to the government. Where’s the sense in that?”
It’s a compelling argument for change. But just as compelling is the disappointment of the thousands of young diploma-holders, and SME employers who need more support to bear the costs of training. Let’s hope that Hayes and Whitehall really are listening.