National Apprenticeship Week blog series: UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton, addresses Greg Clark (Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Posted on: 2018-03-06

Dear Greg Clark

The Industrial Strategy White Paper published late last year recognised the importance of the Built Environment to the UK economy. It promised action for the construction industry based on the five “foundations of productivity”: ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and places. In particular it proposed investing more in construction training, increasing the National Productivity Investment Fund to support transport and housing developments, and boosting digital infrastructure to encourage the roll-out of full-fibre networks.

Underpinning the strategy was the recognition that the UK’s productivity lags 20-30% behind that of our main competitors such as Germany, France and the USA, and radical action is required to bridge this gap. Clearly this is a major challenge for the UK and all policy levers should be pulled to support this effort.

But in some vital, adjoining policy areas, the Government’s agenda is not sufficiently aligned with the vision of the Industrial Strategy. Take the example of construction apprenticeship training. The most recent labour market analysis (CITB, February 2018) predicts that the construction industry will need an additional 158,000 workers over the next five years. These workers will need to be trained in the skills required to build the next generation of 21st century infrastructure such as high-speed railways, nuclear power stations and digital networks. They will also be expected to deliver the Government’s agenda to build more houses year on year, and to build them faster. As we leave the EU we cannot take it for granted that workers from abroad will be able to plug the inevitable skills gaps.

The apprenticeships system needs to be fully engaged in supporting the construction skills agenda. But at present this is simply not the case. The statistics tell their own story. As we recognise the achievement of apprentices across the country in National Apprenticeships Week we should be mindful of the steep fall in the volume of apprenticeship training since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in May 2017. UCEM’s apprenticeships work continues to grow, to the extent that we delivered 73% of surveying apprenticeship starts across England in 2016/17. But the number of starts across construction and the built environment fell overall by 29% between Quarter 1 2016/17 and the same period this year.

These figures should be ringing alarm bells in your Department as they represent a serious risk to the success of the Industrial Strategy. Recent work by UCEM in convening a Skills Summit for the built environment industry urged a unified approach to tackling the acute shortage of skills and qualified workers. It also demonstrated that under-performance in a critical area of skills policy is too serious to be allowed to continue.

Our recommendation for BEIS, is to work more quickly and effectively with employer groups and the Institute for Apprenticeships to ensure that approval of apprenticeship standards is accelerated in those industries which are crucial to the success of the Industrial Strategy. An initial step would be to intervene directly in the case of the Higher and Degree Level Construction standards where there are still no apprenticeships approved for delivery after three and a half years of fruitless effort by the Employer Trailblazer Group.

This should be part of a wider plan to empower employers and remove barriers to take-up, enabling them to use the apprenticeships system to drive their recruitment and training strategies and contribute to the UK’s economic growth.