How can we stop apprentices leaving construction?
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.
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