According to the think-tank Demos, the construction industry accounts for 2.1m jobs in the UK, representing 7pc of the workforce. It is an industry that is highly sensitive to change in the wider economy. As the UK economy has slowly begun to emerge from recession more projects are starting up and the demand for skilled workers is on the increase.
Analysis by the Construction Industry Training Board found that the building industry needs 120,000 apprentices over the next five years to fill this emerging skills gap. However, the number of people completing construction apprenticeships has plunged since the financial crisis, with just 9,306 construction apprenticeships completed last year, which represents a 4% drop on 2013’s already low figure of 9,688. This compares with a high point in 2009 when 16,947 apprentices finished their training.
The good news is that the number of people starting construction apprenticeships has increased for the first time since the onset of the recession with 18,493 starting in 2014 , 14.8% up from the previous year’s figures.
This positive news is reinforced by the Construction Industry Training Board’s latest Employer Attitudes Survey. Of the 1,500 construction employers surveyed, 26% reported that they had taken on apprentices in 2014, up from 20% in 2013 and the highest level since 2008.
One aspect of the growing skill shortage is the recent level of non-completion of apprenticeships which probably reflects the relatively weak growth of the economy at large. The ONS has estimated that nearly half of the 17,630 construction apprentices who started in 2011 had dropped out before 2014.
A recent survey carried out by the Federation of Master Builders showed that 44% of its members are struggling to employ carpenters and joiners, while 42% report the same problems finding bricklayers. Both figures are up by 2% over the last year.
And it is these micro-businesses, employing 10 people or fewer, which the FMB estimates deliver around two-thirds of construction apprenticeships.
One of the key reasons for the shortage of apprentices is the fact that these small enterprises tend to lead a hand to mouth existence with tight margins and constant worries about cash flow. This can lead to a reluctance to take on the responsibility for training up an apprentice over an extended period of up to 3 years.
Another reason is that apprenticeships continue to suffer from an image problem. Research by the think tank Demos shows that parents generally think apprenticeships are a great idea, just not for their kids. A survey of parents of teenagers showed that 90% thought that apprenticeships are a good option for school leavers. However just 32% said it was a good idea for their own child. And construction apprenticeships are seen as less appealing still with just 75% of parents viewing it as an attractive career option.
“People like apprenticeships in theory but aren’t convinced for their own children. The construction industry still has progress to make in winning over parents and schools,” says Ian Wybron, researcher at Demos.
Government plans to improve the quality of apprenticeship training could actually make things worse for the construction industry. They want to put employers more in the driving seat by changing the funding system for the off the job training which will mean more paper-work and financial uncertainty for small firms who may find this more trouble than it is worth.