Jackie Biswell, Managing Director of Apex Roofing, explains why she feels vocational qualifications are so important to the construction sector and discusses the current barriers to adoption of vocational training programmes for some businesses in construction.
On the 14th July, central government announced a new package of measures for higher technical education which will build on its previous efforts to transform technical and vocational education in Britain.
Designed to help plug the skills gap, these measures are welcomed by the construction sector which has long suffered from a skills shortage.
These reforms build on work already underway including the introduction of new T-Levels from September, working with employers to create more high quality apprenticeship opportunities and establishing a network of Institutes of Technology. These are expected to play a key part in helping to rebuild the economy post-COVID-19, boosting access to technical education for many young people and creating the skilled workforce of the future.
But do the new measures threaten to overshadow established apprenticeships? There is a school of thought that T-Levels, especially, may impact the number of apprenticeships that employers offer. Causing a trade-off situation between T-Level placements and apprenticeships.
There is some merit to this, as within smaller organisations there may be a lack of willingness to offer T-Level placements and continue with the same level of apprenticeship placements, especially during a recession.
Yet it could also be argued that offering a wider range of vocational sectors can only be a good thing.
One of the most notable elements of the new measures is that it puts employers in the driving seat, ensuring that the courses on offer meet their needs.
Vocational schemes, such as apprenticeships, have in the past been criticised for not delivering the candidates and the skills needed for specific sectors. These new measures should change this.
Offering young people more options when it comes to higher education is essential to making sure that our skilled sectors, such as roofing, retain key skills and have a steady intake of young talent.
But increased competition for placements with employers requires closer consideration of student and employer conduct. It can be said that in the construction sector particularly, ‘talent stealing’ of newly qualified apprentices is a prevalent issue.
One company invests in training up the apprentices and then when they are qualified, a competitor offers them a more attractive salary or benefits package to leave their current employer.
Any business that has had this happen to them will know that it makes you question whether the investment of time and resources in training these young people is worth it if they are going to take their skills elsewhere.
I believe that as T-levels are going to be phased in over the next two years, there needs to be some consideration by central government to stop this from happening.
We need some sort of collaborative code of conduct within each sector for vocational education programmes that encourages loyalty among employers and students. By encouraging students to stay with the company that trained them for a set period of time, the student is guaranteed job security following qualification and the businesses that trained them benefits from their skills. This may not be practical, but I feel very strongly that some consideration for the issue is warranted. It is one of the key barriers in our sector to participating with vocational training schemes. And if companies like ours don’t want to take on vocational students because of this issue, it widens the skills gap even further.
Guidance for employers and students
We’d also like to see training providers working more closely with the employers to guide students through the training process. One thing that has been greatly lacking in the current apprenticeship schemes is training providers that communicate well with employers and offer guidance not just to the student, but to the employer too about how to help candidates learn what is required for them to do well.
In Apex’s experience, it has been left to the candidate to bridge the communication gap between employer and course which is less than ideal, and we have often had to step in and proactively update them so that the pressure is taken off of the student. I hope that this new focus on employer-led standards should serve to change both issues.
There is no doubt that higher technical qualifications will provide a natural progression route for young people taking new T-Levels from 2020, or A Levels, and adults looking to upskill or retrain, enabling them to take the next step up and gain higher technical skills in key subjects like STEM, something which can only help this country out of the current skills crisis.