THE Department for Transport, Highways England and Network Rail are introducing quotas so that on their contracts, apprenticeships created each year must equate to 2.5 per cent of the workforce. So a workforce of 200 would see five apprentices recruited in the first year of the contract and so on.
But much more can be done. For example, the Common Framework Agreement negotiated between the joint trade unions and EDF for the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant embeds training of traditional apprenticeships and adult trainees as a project priority, with a minimum of 500 apprentices in the building and civil engineering trades.
And a further 500 apprentices, with at least an 8:1 ratio of operatives to apprentices, will be recruited in the mechanical and electrical and engineering construction trades throughout the duration of the project’s construction, and 10:1 in adult craft training.
EDF’s role in the agreement demonstrates the significance of the client in establishing a productive working environment, which recognises the importance of training people and engagement with trade unions and workers to successfully complete the project.
The agreement commits the client and contractors to direct employment and sets targets for the recruitment and deployment of apprentices and adult trainees. Agreed and meaningful ratios of skilled operatives to apprentices, dependent on project size and number of employees, are essential. They help ensure value for money and the much-needed long-term investment in people, not least through proper apprenticeships, mentoring and training.
The government’s target of three million apprenticeships over this parliament is laudable on its face and, combined with an apprenticeship levy on large firms with payrolls of over £3 million, can if done properly help create the placements and skills needed.
But this must not be at the expense of the existing Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and Engineering CITB levies, which take a holistic approach to the skills needs and training standards of their respective areas, from small and medium-size enterprises through to the major contractors, adult workers and apprentices.
And we are yet to see the detail of the Institute of Apprenticeships, which will oversee standards, including on trade union participation in the new “employer-led” body.
Apprenticeships are not just about the needs of employers — they should help to define the apprentice’s identity and their future career path and prospects. Quality apprenticeships can and should be a foundation for the learner’s working life, based on industry-recognised standards and leading to a recognised occupation.
It is essential that trade unions advocate for this at every level. One thing is for sure: the established industry bodies, employers’ associations and trade unions have all said the three million target must not jeopardise quality in the pursuit of quantity. With that target in mind, there is definitely an appetite among young people to enter the industry, with potential new recruits vastly outstripping apprenticeship vacancies.
For years, the CITB and Construction4Growth have called for an immediate doubling of the numbers of apprentices taken on. With young people eager to enter the industry and learn a trade, and the skills forecasts demonstrating that is what is clearly needed, it is at Britain’s peril if these are ignored.
An unacceptable 628,000 16 to 24-year-olds are unemployed — a rate of 13.7 per cent — while tens of thousands more are on taxpayer funded construction-related further education courses, but with no apprenticeship placements and onsite experience to complement their learning.
All these factors show the need to intervene and create a system that demands industry-recognised, quality apprenticeships, throughout construction supply chains, which matches candidates to bona fide apprenticeship placements to help meet the forecasted demand.
Arming young apprentices and adults entering or returning to the industry with the skills, knowledge, training and experience to work safely and competently in their industry-recognised trade or occupation must be underpinned by direct employment and the prospect of a rewarding lifelong career, compared to the precarious work practices and hire-and-fire culture synonymous with the industry in recent years.
Furthermore, highly skilled workers with transferable engineering skills are consistently lost to industry through lack of foresight and planning when plants and industries are faced with redundancies. Pan-industry skills redeployment initiatives are required to help those workers train and reskill and secure decent employment.
But with the adult skills budget cut by the coalition and now being decimated by the Tories, such workers seeking financial assistance to train and change career direction will need to find an altruistic employer who is willing to invest in their future or bear the cost themselves.
That situation is unacceptable in an advanced European economy in the 21st century. If construction booms again, a long-term plan for a sustainable skills base should be in place, and not repeat the mistakes of the past. The challenge for government is to create the environment for real jobs characterised by skilled occupations.
There are plenty of young people and adults who can and want to enter the industry, and they should be afforded genuine opportunities with progressive employers who are committed to quality training to the industry’s recognised standards.