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Construction skills shortages – what’s going on?

It seems that wherever you go in Oxfordshire, you’re bound to see building work going on. New developments, refurbishments, extensions and lots of sites marked out for development. You’ll also see a fairly regular procession of vans, trucks and lorries up and down the highways and byways of the county, going to and from site, delivering materials and getting the job done. "Plenty of work!" says the industry! "Rising pay rates!" says the industry. But there’s another prominent headline; "Major skills shortages!"

In his latest blog, Paddy Patterson of Maverish Ltd and founder of Oxfordshire Apprenticeships asks why there are skills shortages in the construction industry and talks about some of the local initiatives he's involved with that are tackling the issue in Oxfordshire.

I’ve been involved in and around the construction world for a few years now, through working with the award-winning Build!® programme run by Cherwell District Council, through working with Kidlington-based construction training provider, ACE Training and most recently through my work in forming a new Apprenticeship Training AgencyThe Apprenticeship & Training Company Ltd - to focus on Apprenticeship delivery at major local developments such as North West Bicester. Read about the competition to design a logo for the ATA.

Nationally, the number of construction Apprentices recruited annually has fallen over the past decade, despite the overall numbers of Apprenticeship starts rising by over 50 per cent.  In Oxfordshire, the number of construction Apprenticeships fell in the three years to 2013/14 and while provisional figures indicate a slight increase in 2014/15, the proportion of new ‘starts’ in the industry continues to decline and accounts for just 4.1% of all Apprenticeships in the county.

So the big question is why? A recent piece in the Oxford Mail focused on this very issue and offered a number of explanations such as the lack of schools support for promoting construction careers, through to there simply not being enough building firms offering opportunities. Specifically, I think we have two major issues:

Employer resistance to ‘process’

Most firms are happy to have an Apprenticeship on their site but are reluctant to employ the Apprentice directly. There are several reasons behind this, but the main one seems to be a reservation about making that ‘commitment’ to providing work and a wage for a defined period of time. As this report by the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) confirms, many businesses are also put off by the ‘paperwork’ and ‘process’ that comes with taking on an Apprentice, even though there are some extremely generous industry grants available through the CITB that makes it very beneficial for them to do so. The ‘shared Apprentice’ scheme such as that provided by ATA will help in some respect but is not the magic wand solution for the industry.

Girls Allowed?

Another major issue is that the industry hasn’t made enough progress in reinventing itself as an accessible, feasible option for females. We all know the stereotypes that appear to marginalise females and not doubt quite a few males as well. To give you some context, the UK Construction Industry employs over 2m people and almost 9 out of every 10 of those are males. Looking at ‘front line trades’ such as bricklaying, carpentry and so forth, only around 2% are women. For many people, a building site is still regarded as an alpha male environment with back-breaking work and no place for women.

Through a grant provided by the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP), ACE Training is running a ‘Girls Allowed’ project to encourage more females to come into the industry. Find out about the Girls Allowed female only taster morning on 3rd June. This has had a positive impact but ACE Training’s Managing Director Adam Marsh feels this is a much longer-project: “We’ve had more females showing an interest and coming to check us out and we’ve had more females starting courses this year than ever before, but we are still talking small numbers, so we have a long way to go.”

But a more basic truth is that there are simply not enough candidates coming forward of either gender. It is a hard sell when construction rarely features as a strategic skills priority, even though the industry accounts for an estimated 7% of UK GDP and around 10% of all employment.

There are some superb resources available through a new go-construct.org website but again, I think students need to see, feel and do construction for themselves in order to really understand it. Another OxLEP-funded project – ‘Trade School' – has had some success in doing exactly that in schools but finding a space in a school timetable is challenging. 

The opportunities are considerable and the need is acute. Almost a year ago, construction was predicted to be the biggest area of Apprenticeship growth in Oxfordshire but I would wager that hasn’t been reflected in the number of starts since then.

What do you think? How can we encourage more young people, especially females, to consider a career in construction? Get in touch on tel: 01865 323477, email info@oxfordshireapprenticeships.co.uk or tweet us @OxonApprentice