Can the apprenticeships target help construction?

With a consensus that construction sector growth is put at risk by a shortage of skilled construction workers, is the Government's much-promoted 3 million apprenticeship target likely to help? Not according to the chief inspector of schools.  

With the construction sector facing the triple challenge of an aging workforce, growing demand and a shortage of new entrants, the Government's enthusiasm for apprenticeships seemed to offer some hope. 

So it's disappointing to see Sir Michael Wiltshire suggesting that the rush to meet the target has led to "wasting public funds" on poor quality, low-level apprenticeships and employers "abusing the trust" placed in them by the Government and apprentices. 

Sir Michael was speaking at the launch of an Ofsted report into apprenticeships to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) West Midlands Education and Skills Conference in October 2015. The report makes depressing reading, highlighting the failures of low-quality apprenticeships. 

For a construction industry desperately in need of a vibrant and effective training regime, it is perhaps even more depressing to see the high percentage of new apprenticeships being created in sectors such as retail, business administration and marketing - areas where you might have expected established education and training programmes to provide appropriate skills. 

As an office-based employer it's hard to look at a job description for Apprentice Administration Assistant and not wonder why this needs to be a government-funded apprenticeship. Don't we expect to recruit new starters with basic education and then provide further training as part of our normal employment procedures? 

My company operates on this principle, recruiting newcomers with a decent academic qualification and then investing in training in order to develop our staff and bring new skills into the organisation. We do not expect to receive government funding to do this (although it might be nice), it's just good business practice. 

That's an easy choice for us, of course, as we work in a sector where clients judge service not just on price but also on value. We don't have to be the cheapest if we can demonstrate that our offer is better than our competitors so it is in our interest to invest in training. 

This way of building a business is far harder in the adversarial and budget-driven contracting sector. A wholescale re-organisation of construction, introducing value judgements back into contract negotiations, seems unlikely, so some effective government help to tackle the need for proper training would be very welcome. 

As far as I am aware, the future of UK business is not currently threatened by a massive shortage of skilled administration assistants, so wouldn't it be better to direct funding to key areas of our economy where shortages are causing a real problem such as construction and engineering?

The situation is made even worse by the financial crises faced by the further education sector, where many school leavers receive training in basic construction skills. 

In a 2015 report on funding policies for further and higher education, King's College academic Lady Alison Wolf points out that the planned expansion of apprenticeships is largely unfunded and expresses concern that the existing FE budget - not a protected area of expenditure - could be left to foot the bill. 

There is a downside to any simple, number-based, easy-to-communicate target system: it can produce consequences there were not intended or expected.

It would be a huge shame if the Government's laudable intention to boost vocational training ended up simply funding qualifications that we don't really need. Working out how to attract, train and retain skilled trades people is not easy, but let's try and keep the focus of apprenticeships on genuine vocational activities. 

Then we might have a solution to the skills shortage in the construction sector.

Posted by Anna Hern