3 million apprenticeships by 2020: will Britain fail?

Abby Shorter, a skilled young recruit at the end of a plumbing apprenticeship, was featured in The Guardian today.

The 24-year-old had spent the morning fitting radiators in a block of flats in south London and beamed as she told reporters: “I like to see a project grow and progress. It is very rewarding.”1

The former retail manager has spent the past two years learning about combi boilers, taps, and everything else necessary to prepare her for a career in plumbing. She excitedly told The Guardian that once the work in south London was complete, she’d be moving on to a new site, revealing: “This job is all plastic but the next job is all copper. With copper there is more of an art to it. You can bend the pipework in a way that it looks nice; there are soldering techniques.”

Shorter’s skills and enthusiasm are exactly what the plumbing industry, and the construction sector as whole, needs. The construction industry fought its way out of the recession only to be faced with a severe shortage of skilled workers, all whilst project numbers continue to grow.

Addressing the issue, Nick Boles, the UK’s Skills Minister, has pledged to create three million apprenticeships by 2020. Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMD), welcomes the target but emphasises that reforms must take place in order to achieve it.

Berry said: “As construction accounts for about 7% of GDP, it means our sector should be responsible for around 210,000 of these apprenticeships, which equates to 42,000 a year over the next parliament. Given that the industry only achieved 16,000 in 2013/14, there is a lot of work to be done.”

1 in 10 jobs in the UK are in construction – 943,000 young people are out of work – so why aren’t more young people taking on an apprenticeship in the trades?

One possibility is that young people don’t realise the earning potential of a career in the trades, or the job satisfaction that comes with trade work. Plumbers, for instance, can earn £35,000 per year, which is significantly higher than the UK’s average salary of £26,0002. And although the idea of early starts and dirty work may put some people off, being able to use your expertise to help people have safe and comfortable homes is highly rewarding.

Another reason that apprenticeships may not be attracting enough young people is that the schemes do not pay competitively when compared to the wider job market. The national minimum wage for apprentices is £2.73, thus it’s easy to see why a retail or office job may be more appealing for a young person keen to start earning once they have left school or college. The longer-term financial reasons to take an apprenticeship are neglected in these conversations, as it’s not uncommon for plumbers, electricians and builders to out-earn their peers working in offices, factories, and so on, once they become qualified.

Of course, there are holdbacks from the employer’s side too, as many businesses may not have the resources to support apprenticeship programmes, which require time and attention from senior employees to develop an apprentice’s skills.

Therefore, the Skills Minister’s creation of three million new apprenticeships must be able to provide learners with the incentive to take part, and businesses with the means to be able to provide first-class training.

Further to this, the fact that 40% of construction output is coming from the public sector cannot be ignored. Berry believes that the Government should only allow contracts with firms that agree to take on apprentices, stating: “In the past, there has been evidence to suggest that pledges by firms to train apprentices have not transpired. Government need to get better at policing its contractual stipulation if we really are to crank up the level of apprenticeships via the public sector.”

1 The Guardian, 2015. ‘At some point we will have no one coming into the construction industry’. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jun/24/construction-industry-apprenticeships-skilled-workers-training.
2 Wikipedia, 2015. Income in the United Kingdom. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_in_the_United_Kingdom.
[All information sources accessed 25th June 2015].

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