Why the industry is in a pickle over apprentices
Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB on new ideas for an old problem.
As usual when the industry comes out of a downturn, we start to worry about apprentices and ensuring there are enough of them to meet the future needs of the sector. Usually, as the market picks up, support groups will be created to help, advise and support those looking to take on the new recruits.
But while many companies go through this process, it often results in a decision not to take up apprentices. Sound bleak? We agree – but we need to understand these challenges from an employer’s perspective if we ever expect the situation to change.
First, it’s not easy to find people who are skilled, talented and eager to come into the sector. And while we can, and should, “up our game” and go into schools more, we have to understand that if a child expresses an interest in a career their parent will usually send them to talk to someone they know who already works in the sector. Do we really think at the moment that people from industry, let alone outside it, are talking about the sector in a good light?
Then we have the NEETs programmes, aimed at getting those Not in Education, Employment and Training back into work. As a rule, I think these programmes are important and help us deal with bigger issues affecting society, such as third generation unemployment. The challenge, though, can be that often those who are apathetic are more likely to be pushed into jobs in construction, often because of other people’s less than flattering perceptions of the sector. This results in those who are interested in construction-based roles being put off by classroom environments in FE colleges that don’t reflect a professional work environment.
“Once companies have managed to take on an apprentice, a number of other challenges arise. For one, with the current client focus on the recruitment of local labour for projects, subcontractors are often forced to take on apprentices for short-term work.”
Once companies have managed to take on an apprentice, a number of other challenges arise. For one, with the current client focus on the recruitment of local labour for projects, subcontractors are often forced to take on apprentices for short-term work. When they leave that particular job it is frequently not feasible to keep that individual on if they don’t have access to their own transport. Additionally, if the employer knows that the role cannot be sustained, the apprentice is more likely to be treated as a low-skilled labourer – thus leaving an individual with a very bad impression of the industry.
The consequence can be that the apprentice is basically underpaid for a three-month labouring job that masquerades as an apprenticeship and uses up some of the apprenticeship funding available for them, which sometimes compromises their ability to gain access to further funded training and creates suspicion in other employers of why they only lasted three months.
To cap it off, the project will quite likely later produce glowing reports of how many people it got into jobs and apprenticeships. Well, it’s enough to make anyone feel a little bitter isn’t it?
Even if the company does manage to keep apprentices on through this period, it’s fairly common for other companies to lure them away with bigger salaries – salaries they can afford as they haven’t had the cost of putting someone through an apprentice scheme.
Companies aren’t happy as they worked hard and ended up in a worse position, something which makes them less and less likely to employ apprentices in the future. Individuals aren’t happy because they are not getting the training they deserve and the industry and government aren’t happy as we don’t have the right skills for the future.
Of course, there are companies with great apprenticeship schemes and great apprentices, but if we continue to ignore the greater challenges faced by the sector in the belief that good news will spread, we are not likely to move far forward.
And move forward we must. A few ways we could do this are:
- Having clients focus on the whole of a main contractor’s supply-chain rather than the specialists employed on that particular job. If a Birmingham-based job has an in-situ frame, requiring a specialist trade which the main contractor uses a Liverpool-based subcontractor for, it doesn’t make sense to force the use of local apprentices here. Much more sensible would be to look and see which other subcontractors (even if they are not used on that job) are employed in the local area and encourage the main contractor to work with their supply chain to create a longer value solution.
- Encouraging industry to work more closely with FE colleges. Colleges are community-led and government-funded, and we have to acknowledge classes may be off-putting. But by showing support, and helping colleges build links to real jobs that can be promoted, the calibre of students is much more likely to increase.
- Support your supply chain. By working with your entire supply chain and considering apprenticeship uptake as a value more likely to get them a place on your frameworks, you can help the industry move forward as well as showing clients how you are meeting the needs of the Social Value Act, as well as being an “employer of choice” when the market really picks up.
While much of this might seem like additional work, it’s not in comparison with the time, cost and quality that you will have to sacrifice further on down the line when you can’t get the subcontractors you need to turn up, never mind produce work of the quality required.
Chrissi McCarthy MCIOB is managing director of Liverpool-based consultancy Constructing Equality