In fact, civils contractors are switching their training and development focus, to an extent, from graduate recruitment to apprentices.
Statistics published this week by the Department for Education show that there has been a 24% fall in apprenticeship starts for the 2017/18 academic year in England compared with the previous academic year. Although there was no breakdown of the numbers by industry to reveal what is happening across construction, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) was sufficiently concerned to repeat its call for reform of the apprenticeship levy.
But the Civil Engineering Contractors Association’s annual training and development survey shows a 40% in the number of apprentices in 2017 and an expected 32% rise this year.
However, while graduate recruitment in 2017 also grew, by 37%, contractors said that they had cut programmes in 2018 and expected numbers to fall by 31% this year.
These figures seem to indicate that the government’s much criticised reforms to apprenticeships are now having an impact on the sector, CECA said. It also means that contractors appear to be bucking the trend for the wider economy, which has seen a steep reduction in the number of apprenticeships.
Despite the boost, civils contractors still report problems with the apprenticeship levy system, with 34% of payers indicating that they were unlikely to spend their apprenticeship levy funds this year.
CECA chief executive Alasdair Reisner said: “Our members have battled through a lot of bureaucracy that has arisen with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. However these firms have also told us that they see apprenticeships as one of the best routes to bring vital new workers into the sector.
“It is great news that their efforts are now showing dividends, with a significant and apparently sustained growth in apprenticeship numbers.”
FMB chief executive Brian Berry had a different perspective. “Apprenticeships are falling and the government must take urgent action to reverse the decline,” he said.
He added: “At the recent Conservative party conference, the government announced much-needed reforms to the apprenticeship levy but these do not go far enough. From April 2019, large firms will be allowed to pass 25% of levy vouchers down through the supply chain to smaller firms but the FMB is calling for this to be increased to 100%. This is an important change because in construction, it’s the smaller firms that train more than two thirds of all apprentices. Conversely, large firms don’t tend to directly employ or train tradespeople. If the government is serious about creating three million quality apprenticeships by 2020, it must ensure the apprenticeship levy works for the construction industry.”
With a fall in the number of foreign EU nationals working in the UK in the past year and the government giving no special dispensation to the construction industry’s need for migrant workers after Brexit, it is “even more vital that the government listens to the industry and reforms the apprenticeship levy before it is too late,” Brian Berry said.
“We need to be training more UK-born apprentices to reduce future reliance on migrant workers from Europe or else the construction sector will grind to a halt.”