Skills Minister addresses construction industry over ongoing skills crisis

Posted On: 
3rd December 2015

At a Parliamentary roundtable to launch a new report by the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), the Skills Minister and Shadow Small Business Minister discussed with industry experts how apprenticeships could address the ongoing skills shortage in UK construction.     

The Government’s announcement in the recent Autumn Statement and Spending Review included a significant funding boost for apprenticeships through a new levy on business, which will help create 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020.

This alongside other initiatives designed to drive up the number of apprentices, suggests that policymakers are committed to the model.

However, the many businesses still have their reservations when it comes to apprenticeships, with many criticising the complexity and cost of the process.

For an industry such as construction, which is currently facing a severe skills shortage, these issues must be resolved.

Taking the lead on finding solutions is the FMB, whose new report,

Defusing the Skills Time Bomb
, was launched at a Parliamentary roundtable this week.

The report identified the barriers that are preventing construction firms from investing in apprenticeships and found that a third of small construction firms were being put off by the bureaucracy involved. 

Speaking at the event, Skills Minister Nick Boles said the report was “timely” given the recent announcements made by the Chancellor and added that he hoped to see a “sea change” in UK apprenticeship schemes.        

The Minister identified the three driving forces which would achieve the shift as: the new requirement for apprenticeships to be part of any public procurement, the duty compelling public sector bodies with over 250 employees to have a certain proportion of apprentices and the new Apprenticeship Levy.

The new funding, he said, would be aimed at improving both the quality and quantity of apprenticeships as it would allocate more cash per person as well as increasing the number of places available overall.

Shadow Small Business Minister Bill Esterton welcomed the extra funding and the recognition that there must be a balance between quality and quantity, but added that the Government still had a lot of work to do in ensuring that was delivered. 

“If you go down the route of getting as many bums on seats as possible, there is a danger of sacrificing the quality,” he said.  

Adding a further note of caution, Dave Bentley, the National President of the FMB, suggested that quality in the construction industry would not improve until young people were encouraged into the profession as strongly as they are currently driven towards university. 

“We have got to start changing the culture in schools,” he said.

Mr Esterton echoed this point, describing the relationship between schools and the world of work as “absolutely crucial.”

“It’s something in this country that employers have been bemoaning for a very long time,” he said. 

The Shadow Small Business Minister identified careers advice and work experience as playing a central part in prompting the necessary culture change.  

The Business Minister agreed, and urged the industry to engage with schools and play a more active role in providing careers advice.       

Mr Boles continued by recognising the main challenges identified in the FMB’s report, telling attendees: “At the moment some employers get the point of apprenticeships and they invest in them… but those businesses are only 14% of all employers.

Other businesses, he said, were concerned “about where they will find the people, how difficult it might be to manage them, where to get the training, how it will fit in with managing the flow of contracts etc. and it all just feels a bit too complicated.”

Mr Boles added that the construction industry had been one of the first to identify these issues and had pioneered the apprenticeship levy through the Construction Industry Training Board. 

Addressing a recommendation in the FMB’s reports, he suggested that the national levy could work alongside the CITB levy through “some combination of the two.”

“It should be that those companies who are paying the national levy aren’t paying twice but are paying whatever is left to the CITB,” he said.

Responding to another of the report’s recommendations on how the new apprenticeship voucher could be used, Mr Boles said: “In principle it seems to me that if an employer thinks the CITB does a good job of commissioning training on their behalf, and is already giving them money to commission training on their behalf and wants to therefore carry on using them through the digital voucher system, it seems obvious that should happen.”

The Minister concluded on the issue of complexity within the system as well as the lack of available information, which was highlighted in the FMB’s findings. 

“The division of responsibility is between us and the industry’s representative bodies… we have a responsibility to make sure that the new system is as simple and intuitive and transparent as possible. That’s why we are not rushing… 

Appealing to industry experts in the room, he added: “We can do the big messages, but you can bring those who have had experience of apprenticeships together with those who haven’t.”