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The critical issue of the shortage of skills is a key challenge for future and sustained growth in the construction industry. Here, Ian Roberts, Bursar at Royal Grammar School in Worcester, offers his interpretation of the statement “A commitment to apprenticeship schemes is needed to tackle the critical issue of skills shortage in the UK construction industry.”

Over the course of nearly 30 years I witnessed the demise of the apprenticeship programme in Barrow in Furness, resulting in skills lost in critical areas over this period, which in turn significantly increased costs and caused time delays to a revitalised build programme.

Some of the key finding from a recent survey of 91,000 employers by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) which “suggests that the problem of inadequate skills, qualification or experience in the workforce is hitting some industries harder than others, with more skills shortage found in areas such as manufacturing, construction and plumbing, as well as in health and social care.

Neil Carberry, director for employment and skills for the CBI provided a clear answer on how this could be achieved by stating that “we must expand access to high-quality apprenticeships and other ‘learn while you earn’ schemes and ensure that these meet the needs of both businesses and employees”. I fully support the commitment to apprenticeship schemes; however, we need to move the initiative into the twenty first century and engage with our apprentices much earlier than the initial interview.

One of the benefits of now working in a school allows me to see more clearly the potential of our youth and the commitment and hard work of teachers to prepare them for life beyond the classroom.  However, there is a lack of coherence and cooperation across Education and Business, which should take the discussion beyond merely the provision of apprenticeships. Schools should at the very least be addressing the problem raised in the UKCES study that “employers struggled to find employees with the core generic skills of communication, literacy and numeracy”.

In announcing the new apprenticeship commission James Wates, Chairman of CITB highlighted that “To compete globally, we need to ensure that our apprentices are skilled and trained to their full potential.”  TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said “employers, unions and government must each play their part in tackling the UK’s damaging skill shortages”.  I would suggest that schools are also a key player.  

That said, I also have to admit to a lack of confidence in large-scale strategic initiates driven by short-term political goals.  But I firmly believe that there is an opportunity to start from the bottom up, locally, to create a more constructive dialogue at an earlier age with pupils and business to inform their subject choices where appropriate, to provide quality work experience, and better prepare youngsters to meet the expectations of their future employers.

There can be no doubt that a commitment to apprenticeship is needed to tackle the critical issue of skills shortage in the UK construction industry just as there is across many businesses.  The industry needs to develop a pro-active approach and if they are really smart they will start that interaction much earlier in partnership with their local schools.