Can Apprenticeships Plug the UK’s Skills Gap?

The UK’s construction industry acknowledges that there is a skills crisis, one exacerbated by the departure of many EU-born workers in the wake of the Brexit referendum. A renewed enthusiasm for apprenticeships offers a way to attract fresh blood into the sector and address diversity issues.

Is there still a skills shortage in the UK construction industry? 

The UK’s construction industry has faced an uphill struggle to recruit sufficiently skilled workers—notably bricklayers and carpenters—following the country’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016. 

Figures show that despite being one of the UK’s largest employers, with 3.1 million people on its books, since 2017 the sector has lost more than a third of its EU-born workforce as these employees have chosen not to stay in the country. 

While the government has added brickies, plasterers, roofers and carpenters to the ‘shortage occupation list,’ meaning such workers from overseas can enter the country to work with fewer visa requirements, there remains the question of how to attract domestic workers to the sector. 

Industry leaders and campaigners have called for the creation of special programmes to speed up the process of getting local—and particularly young—people trained, not least because apprenticeships in construction take a number of years to complete. 

But despite the length of time they take—anywhere between 12 months and six years—apprenticeships remain a popular way for many to enter a sector and acquire the right skills. What then is involved in undertaking an apprenticeship? And how does this work in construction? 

How do apprenticeships in construction work? 

According to the government, apprentices should undergo on-the-job training and spend at least 20% of their working hours completing classroom-based learning with a college, university or training provider, a process which leads to a nationally recognised qualification. 

Apprentices get paid and receive holiday pay, plus they get to spend time working their area of choice, ultimately undergoing a formal assessment, which leads to a nationally recognised qualification. 

The government says there are many benefits to completing an apprenticeship. These include “experience and skills development, a nationally recognised qualification—with no tuition fees—as well as employee benefits, a wage and exposure to industry professionals.”  

Industry initiative Go Construct, which is backed by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), spells out what someone can expect if they are considering undertaking an apprenticeship in construction. 

What types of construction apprenticeships are there? 

“An intermediate apprenticeship (level 2) usually takes two years to complete, but there are over 100 construction-related apprenticeships at four different qualification levels lasting at least 12 months.  

“The length of your course will depend on your existing experience, qualifications and the job role you choose.” 

Apprenticeships in construction cover a range of career paths, Go Construct says, from carpenters and bricklayers to architects. People can train for a variety of other roles, including conservation expert, archaeologist or tunnelling engineer, all under the umbrella of being a construction apprentice. 

Benefits of employing apprentices for construction firms 

So why employ an apprentice? The CITB says apprenticeships in construction are a valuable investment for all companies, helping to build skills that are relevant to a firm’s activities and long-term requirements.  

“They are ideal for hiring new recruits, as well as upskilling or retraining existing employees of any age, at all levels,” it adds. 

Additionally, all construction employers are eligible for government incentives for taking on an apprentice—with rates currently set at up to £4,000 for those in England and Wales, and up to £5,000 for Scottish firms. Additionally, companies that are registered to pay the apprenticeship levy receive CITB grants of £11,000 over the course of a three-year apprenticeship. 

How are apprenticeships funded in the UK? 

The government introduced the apprenticeship levy in April 2017 to fund the development of apprentices. It’s paid by large employers with an annual wage bill of more than £3 million. Currently, only 2% of employers pay the levy, which is set at 0.5% of a company’s annual wage bill. 

Smaller employers—those with a total annual pay bill of less than £3 million—pay 5% of the cost of their apprenticeship training, with the government paying the rest. 

“Every employer who pays the levy has a digital account where they can access their levy funds to spend on apprenticeship training,” the government says. 

But things haven’t gone exactly to plan with the levy. According to reports, while it was intended to encourage 600,000 new apprenticeship starts a year across all sectors, the average has been nearer 330,000. 

Alao, unspent levy funds go back into the Treasury, which displeases many. Employers’ organisation the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the timeframes for apprenticeships don’t suit many businesses, and it has called on the government to evolve the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible Skills Challenge Fund. 

This, the CBI said, “would allow firms to spend their funds on any training that is part of regulated qualification or accredited training course—as well as apprenticeships.” It pointed to a survey it had carried out that found that under such a policy shift, levy-payers would invest an additional 30% of their levy over the next 12 months for training. 

What does the future hold for apprenticeships in construction? 

While the issues around the levy are contentious, what does the construction industry generally make of the campaign to attract more workers through apprenticeships? And do the benefits of employing apprentices outweigh the challenges? 

In a report by CITB—whose chief executive Tim Balcon entered the construction industry as an apprentice himself—one in five construction companies surveyed thought their apprentices “were positively contributing within six months of being recruited and more than three quarters (77%) felt they became an asset within two years.” 

Andy Raynor, head of apprenticeships at building materials supplier Travis Perkins, told the CITB: “We’ve grown a more diverse workforce. We’re bringing in people from different backgrounds all the time now.  

“Apprenticeships really enable us to bring people in who aren’t from the sector. As an organisation, we were 88% male, 12% female, but our apprentices are 62% male, 38% female. Over several years, that will make a considerable change.” 

While some would like to see further reforms to the way they are structured, while the levy system to pay for such programmes may be adjusted, and while it hasn’t had exactly the impact some had hoped for, the route of apprenticeships as a way for people to enter the industry seems to be firmly established. 

Critics will be hoping that changes bring about the positive outcomes they want to see. At the end of the day, the more skilled staff the industry can attract, train and retain, the better. 

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