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Scottish builders are getting gloomier

10 Oct 11 There is growing doom and gloom among Scottish building companies, and warning that apprentice numbers will have to be cut by as much as a third.

SBF chief executive Michael Levack
SBF chief executive Michael Levack

Weakening confidence and emptying order books are hampering the Scottish construction industry’s capacity to recruit and retain apprentices, according to a new survey of industry employers.

This is one of the key findings of the latest quarterly survey of around 700 construction firms that make up the Scottish Building Federation.

Responding to the survey results, SBF chief executive Michael Levack has urged the Scottish government to accelerate the introduction of legislation that recognises the creation of apprenticeship opportunities as a key criterion for awarding public sector contracts.

Following three successive quarters of recovering industry confidence, the latest survey found employers’ confidence has slipped by 13 points in the last three months and now stands at minus 19. Compared to the previous quarter, the percentage of respondents to the latest survey who are more confident about their business prospects for the next 12 months compared to the past year has dropped from 30% to 19%. Meanwhile, the proportion of those employers who are more pessimistic about the outlook for their business over the next year has increased from 35% to 46%.

Of those employers surveyed who currently employ apprentices, only 12% expect to be able to recruit an increased number of apprentices over the next year, while 56% expect they will have to cut back on the number of apprentices they employ. Out of the total, 17% anticipate having to cut the number of apprentices they recruit to zero this year.

Asked what would help them to recruit an increased number of apprentices, 44% said they needed to increase their workload to be able to offer apprentices gainful employment. 33% said their confidence about the outlook for their business would need to improve before they would be ready to recruit additional apprentices. Meanwhile, 17% cited the cost of employing and training an apprentice as the main barrier preventing them from employing a larger number.

Responses from the sample of employers responding to the survey suggest the number of apprentices working in the construction sector over the next year could fall by as much as 35%.

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Official figures produced by the Scottish Building Apprenticeship & Training Council (SBATC) show the number of apprentices starting an SBATC-approved four-year construction apprenticeship fell by 9% between 2009 and 2010 and by a further 10% between 2010 and 2011. The SBATC is responsible for regulating and monitoring the working conditions, wages, recruitment and training of apprentices in the Scottish building industry.

Separate figures from Skills Development Scotland show the overall number of modern apprentices participating in the Modern Apprenticeship construction framework fell by 13% in 2010-11, with 899 fewer construction apprentices in training at the end of March this year compared to the same time in 2010.

Commenting on the survey results, Mr Levack said: “Following successive quarters when industry confidence appeared to be gradually recovering, this latest survey shows confidence now heading back into reverse. I believe this must be a symptom of the significant cuts to public capital spending now confirmed by the Scottish government’s spending review, combined with continued sluggish performance in the private sector.”

Mr Levack added: “Coupled with recent official statistics, the survey results also demonstrate the increasing challenge employers are facing in offering apprenticeship opportunities in the construction industry. The construction sector and related trades has typically been the backbone of the apprenticeship system in Scotland. It is a high quality training framework that equips young people with specialised skills that are highly sought after in the labour market.”

Urging the Scottish government to take action, Mr Levack said: “The public procurement system could do a great deal more to recognise the significant efforts many building firms are making in continuing to offer apprenticeships in the face of such tough trading conditions. We have strongly welcomed the Scottish Government’s commitment to bring forward a Sustainable Procurement Bill designed to recognise the creation of skills and training opportunities as part of the system for awarding public sector contracts.

“With a downward trend in the number of apprentices working in construction apparently set to continue over the next 12 months, the Scottish government needs to accelerate the timetable for bringing forward this legislation and extend its scope beyond major contracts to include public construction contracts of any size. In so doing, the Scottish government would give a greater number of industry employers the confidence to recruit more apprentices, and help the industry to start rebuilding the skills and capacity it has lost.”

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