The government’s indifference to European workers will only plunge the sector over the edge, warns GAIL CARTMAIL
BRITAIN is about to plunge into a construction skills black hole. A crisis created by the industry’s inability to train apprentices on the scale needed and a government’s lack of effective intervention.
This crisis has been a long time coming; for decades construction has been failing to train enough apprentices.
The gap in skills training has been plugged by a reliance on migrant labour.
Unite has identified extreme exploitation by industry under-cutters and construction is one of the sectors recently identified as harbouring modern slavery.
Incredibly 50 per cent of the construction workforce in London was born outside of the UK (the figure for the UK as a whole is one in eight).
Even with this inflow of skills from other countries, since the industry began to recover from recession five years ago, there has been an ever-widening skills gap, resulting in projects being cancelled or delayed.
What will plunge the sector over the edge is Brexit and the way government has treated migrant European workers with complete indifference since Britain voted to leave the EU.
Last month the government’s migration figures showed a sharp increase in people from EU8 countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) leaving the UK, and with the clock ticking on the UK’s exit, that flow is expected to become a flood.
In the light of these concerns we hoped the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has responsibility for construction, would be taking urgent action to avert the looming skills crisis. This is far from the case.
When Unite made a freedom of information request about what action the department was taking to increase the number of skilled UK construction workers entering the industry, BEIS demonstrated that it has washed its hands of the problem.
It said: “Industry is best placed to estimate its future skills needs, and we are therefore working with the industry through the Construction Leadership Council and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), to understand the future skills requirements as a whole.”
The government is relying on the people who have created the mess to sort it out. A strategy doomed to failure.
So what is the problem with construction skills training and how great are the skills shortages?
The CITB estimates the industry needs 31,350 entrants every year. Yet in the last 12 months just 21,460 people began any form of apprenticeship and dropout rates are 30 per cent.
Yet there is no shortage of young people keen to enter a career in construction. Via an FOI request to the government’s Skills Funding Agency, Unite learned that in 2015-16, 192,000 people began a classroom construction course. Eighty-nine per cent of these courses were not linked to an apprenticeship.
Without the on-site training which forms part of an apprenticeship, those undertaking a classroom course cannot gain an NVQ, the only recognised qualification in construction. Having pursued a dead-end course students’ hopes of entering the industry with the relevant skills and qualifications are dashed.
The reason why industry is not offering a greater number of apprenticeships is straightforward. It is wedded to a short-termist, hire and fire culture.
Companies, especially the large household names, barely employ any construction workers. Work is subcontracted many times over, the use of agency workers is standard practice and well in excess of 50 per cent of the industry is self-employed (with much of that figure comprising bogus self-employment).
Given that unhealthy mix it is hardly surprising that companies take the attitude that as they don’t employ anyone they are not going to train anyone.
The solution is clear: the government has to take the lead and force construction employers to train apprentices. This can be achieved by requiring all companies bidding for and working on public-sector contracts to train apprentices. If a company does not train apprentices then it can’t undertake public works.
As the number of apprentices increases we also need to ensure that new apprentices are from genuinely diverse backgrounds. There needs to be a much greater encouragement for women and ethnic minority candidates. Construction must be genuinely inclusive if it is going to tackle its skills crisis.
Finally, the industry must give Unite a seat at the table when it comes to skills training. We are passionate in increasing the number of apprentices. Whether it is agreeing high numbers of apprentices to be trained on the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point or supporting good practice that really can and does increase the number of women undertaking electrical apprenticeships, for example JTL women ambassadors, Unite is always prepared to knock down the doors and get deals done.
Our challenge is to convert the current stalemate into action by government and the industry. We wear our heart on our sleeves and stand by good quality apprenticeship opportunities for young workers to earn as they learn. It is time for others to step up to the plate before it’s too late.
Gail Cartmail is assistant general secretary of Unite.