When the recession hit, construction contracted by 16.5% in the space of three years.
The industry cut back on training, stopped offering apprenticeships and desperately tried to cling on through one of the worst economic downturns of recent times.
Then things started to improve. Suddenly there was plenty of work – but nobody to do it.
And this explains, in a nutshell, why recruiting and retaining apprentices is now so vital to our sector.
They provide the opportunity, and the means, to help address the skills shortage and, at a time when major national infrastructure projects are taking place and with a growing demand for skilled labour, they can help firms become future fit.
Construction is a major sector of the UK economy, generating almost £90 billion annually (6.7% of GDP) and employing in excess of 2.93 million people – the equivalent of about 10% of UK employment.
But it faces many challenges – all of which seem to have an obvious solution, if only business and the government can invest in the right training and skills.
- Hanging up the tool-belt
Firstly, many workers are retiring, and the rate of retirement looks set to increase as 22% of the workforce are over 50, and 15% are in their 60s.
- Competing sectors
Secondly, the industry is losing out to competing sectors where work is more stable and pay is more competitive.
- Lack of skills to meet demand
Thirdly, employers cannot recruit staff with the right skills, qualifications or experience, and demand is rising.
- Image crisis
And finally, the industry still has a poor image which is having a detrimental impact on its ability to recruit and retain people with the right type of skills.
CITB research shows that the overall appeal of the construction industry as a career option for young people is low, scoring 4.2 out of 10 among 14 to 19 year olds.
We need a clear commitment from Government to invest in major construction projects that can help businesses plan their work flow. We also need close collaboration between businesses and training colleges to ensure up-coming shortages are addressed.
Skills gaps are often plugged by an international workforce, simply reinforcing the acute shortage in the UK.
Instead, we need to be convincing young, unemployed people to commit to apprenticeships and create clear pathways for personal and professional development within the industry.
It’s a mistake to think that the benefits are weighted towards the apprentice that receives training, a job and a career path.
As an employer, I want apprentices in our company because I know they will form part of a successful business strategy.
We benefit not only from their contribution on site, but their contribution to the team. They come to understand what we do from the ground up, give us options for succession planning and internal promotion and, if we do it right, they will be the mentors for our future apprentices. This keeps consistency and quality at the forefront of business development.
If construction is going to continue to grow and pull our economy onwards and upwards, we need to do two things: invest and inspire. This means spending money now by investing in attracting new talent and training existing employees.
We also need to work on changing the perception of construction as a viable career choice.
Young people need to see the sector as a reliable industry – one with prospects. Most have little idea of the wide range of employment opportunities available.
Additionally, we need to address the fact that the employment rate for women in construction has been abysmally slow.
The current situation therefore provides us with a unique opportunity to change this – and drive forward a new surge of talent into the industry.
The sector can neither justify nor countenance remaining a ‘no-go area’ for women.
And in order to fill the skills gap it needs to recruit and retain more women – and not just in support roles.
Make it a success
Successfully taking on apprentices – male and female – is a lot to do with expectations.
We expect a lot from our apprentices – commitment, eagerness and pride in their work.
At the same time, they know they can expect a lot from us too – a career path that factors in their goals, and a culture that values their contribution.
Training our own apprentices means we are developing people with our company culture, ensuring our ethos, processes and standards are part of their approach to the job.
It’s impossible to measure the commercial value of something like that.
But in my view, it far outweighs any training, levy or mentoring costs associated with apprenticeships.
And if the industry is going to survive and continue to thrive, we all need to address the challenges and embrace the opportunities of bringing new blood into our sector.
Are you an apprentice, or do you take on apprentices? What have your experiences of working in the roofing sector been?
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