Reaching out to school-age youngsters could be key to addressing Conneely Group’s concerns
As the skills shortage intensifies and the finger of blame is pointed at the mismanagement of the apprenticeship levy, it is becoming apparent that not only is government action required, but it must be supplemented by help from the construction industry itself and educational bodies to fully address the problem.
In spite of the apprenticeship levy’s shortcomings being a key issue, the construction sector skills shortage is a lingering problem that runs beyond that. PwC reported in 2017 that one-fifth of the workforce was due to retire in the five years to 2022. With Brexit now making way for a new points-based immigration system, there will be less access to a migrant workforce to plug the gap.
The natural response, therefore, is to look within by recruiting British youngsters into the workforce to cover the shortfall.
The government is aware of the issue, and has set about implementing changes to the curriculum with the introduction of T Levels as a new route into higher education. They are to consist of vocational courses, which integrates classroom learning with practical work experience in subjects such as building services engineering, design, surveying, planning and on-site construction.
However, with the government’s T Level courses only beginning in 2020 and there being some time until those new starters finish their qualifications, the onus is on the industry to act in their own interests and take steps to directly intervene in the meantime.
Conneely Group, a business focussing on drylining and exterior facades, has looked to do just that.
Conneely said: “We have established the Conneely Academy for Drylining. We work with colleges and have sponsored a 20-week training course.
“Students are taught English and maths to ensure that they can complete paperwork, and, after 20 weeks at college, they complete a two-year NVQ.
“We take on 30 young people every year. On average, tradespeople will contract with us for ten years; in that time, we train them for a variety of construction-based certifications. Many of our management team started out as tradespeople and have since completed qualifications up to NVQ Level 7.”
Yet, even with this proactivity, there are still problems.
Conneely feels that, for all his firm's headway, the industry is still having to grapple with the problem of how to entice more youngsters to come into the field to be trained by programmes such as his.
Conneely explained: “Despite our best efforts to train young people, there is still a real shortage of people wanting to join the construction industry.
“There seems to be a consensus that construction is just “builders”; this is simply untrue. We offer a full range of jobs, many of which will never involve working on site, and we need to change the perception of the industry to attract and retain new people.”
One solution may be to begin targeting young people and introducing them to the sector and the opportunities it provides even earlier: at school age.
During their formative years, youngsters are eyeing up their future career prospects, and taking steps toward their future profession. Reaching out to schoolchildren may provide the ideal opportunity for the industry to cash-in, promote its image and present itself as an alluring prospect, just as Conneely calls for.
Anna Hern, the managing director of Ridgemount PR, said in 2019: “To attract a teenager into the appropriate training and career path, they need to have construction as an idea in their heads, and the earlier we can get it there the better.”
However, the prospect of reaching directly into schools may be a daunting one, so Hern is one of a number of industry marketing gurus who last year had been working on the development of an online platform to promote the industry and raise awareness of the benefits of outreach programmes and how sector operators can engage with young people.
Titled Building: Future Generations, the platform aims to bring together a number of different initiatives, with case studies attached to make construction bosses aware of the benefits, in an effort to prompt positive action.
While the industry waits for the impact of the government's curricular adjustments to become fully known, Hern reiterated that construction firms must assume a more direct role in promoting the sector.
She said: “We cannot rely on the education sector to channel school leavers into the industry or on overseas recruitment to bring in talent.
“We need to attract our own school leavers by showing them the variety of careers that are available and what success is possible.”
Indeed, if the construction industry is able to effectively engage with schoolchildren, it is only sure to benefit the uptake of T Levels and optimise its impact by presenting the case that vocational and STEM courses can lead to lucrative opportunities. A collaboration programme between the government, the sector and educational bodies could, in this sense, chart the way forward.