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Opinion: Apprenticeships - the old-school solution to housing’s skills crisis

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Opinion: Apprenticeships - the old-school solution to housing’s skills crisis

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

Opinion: Apprenticeships - the old-school solution to housings skills crisis Opinion: Apprenticeships - the old-school solution to housings skills crisis

By Paul Rigby, learning & development manager, Forrest

The announcement earlier this month that a cross-party commission is being launched to investigate the quantity and quality of apprenticeships in construction will come as welcome news to the scores of social housing providers struggling to meet new build targets – providing some reassurance as to the sustainability of the construction sector, so badly affected by a skills drift due to recessionary pressures.

Although apprenticeships have a long history in construction, there’s little doubt that their popularity has waned in recent years. Research from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has revealed that the number of people completing construction-related apprenticeships has plunged by almost 75 per cent since the financial crisis, from 14,250 four years ago to just 3,760 in 2012/13. The board estimates that the construction industry will need to recruit an extra 120,000 apprentices over the next five years to ensure that there are enough skilled workers for the future.

Whilst the decline in construction apprenticeships at first correlated with the downturn in activity, the qualification’s fate has not improved as order books have grown. With the latest Office for National Statistics report showing public housing work has increased by nearly 30 per cent in the last 12 months, this widening skills gap is threatening not only the supply of affordable housing in the UK, but the health of the wider economy.

To deliver the pipeline of new homes, registered providers (RPs) and their contractor partners must work together to create more, relevant apprenticeship opportunities.

Creating opportunities

In an effort to bring new skills into the sector, some RPs stipulate the number of apprenticeships they want their supply chain to provide in the terms of new contracts. While imposing quotas can be an effective means of encouraging training, this needs to be done on a job-by-job basis.

Being too prescriptive or setting unrealistic targets could mean recruiting more trainees than there is work available for – or not enough. Giving real thought to the scope, length and complexity of a works programme, and whether it is practical and safe to offer training for the duration, will help to guide the number of apprenticeships that an organisation is able to stipulate. Clients need to work with potential suppliers at the procurement stage to decide what is feasible and come to a number together. Often, a shared apprenticeship scheme (such as that offered by CITB) can be utilised to enable the completion of a formal apprenticeship where individual projects have limited duration or insufficient long-term placement. The scheme has been developed to ensure the completion of 500 new apprenticeship starts each year.

Consideration should also be given to the types of roles needed to deliver the work. Modern apprenticeship opportunities range from site operatives including brick-laying, joinery and plumbing, to ‘white collar’ professions such as quantity surveyors and project managers, which are proving more and more popular as the rise in tuition fees has seen increasing numbers of young people choose not to go to University. Non-traditional occupations such as back-office administration and customer support are also vital to ensuring an organisation runs efficiently and sustainably, and apprenticeships in these functions can offer an excellent ground for high-quality skills development. 

Re-imaging apprenticeships 

In addition to meeting the skills shortage, social housing providers would be advised to look at how they can use apprenticeships to create social value on a local level.

Offering apprenticeships in the local community will provide convenient and locally-relevant training programmes that appeal to social tenants, helping to keep skills and jobs in the area and supporting the local economy, as well as lessening the burden on local welfare requirements. 

There is also a misconception that apprenticeships are only suitable for school leavers, but there’s no reason why older candidates can’t be engaged. In fact, bringing people who have lost their jobs during the recession or are now looking to start a new career after a period of absence back into work can actually be hugely beneficial. 

For example, as part of a 10-year refurbishment and maintenance partnership with Bolton at Home, Forrest recruited half of the 20 apprentices required through the council’s Urban Care and Neighbourhood Centres, which aim to create positive experiences for those not in education, employment or training. I can confidently report that these candidates are among our best and brightest, often being more enthusiastic, motivated and determined to succeed second time round.

By rethinking how they approach apprenticeships and working with their contractor partners, social housing providers will be better able to develop the skills they need to support high quality house building in the future.

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