The huge UK high-speed rail project – known as HS2 – recently announced a milestone that was nothing to do with kilometres of track laid or tunnels bored. Having pledged in 2020 to take on 2,000 apprentices over the lifetime of the project, it took on its 1,000th apprentice in January 2023.
In fact, there are over 100 construction-related apprenticeships available in the UK, from bricklayers, plumbers and roofers to construction design and build technicians and BEMS (building energy management systems) controls engineers.
When it comes to managing and strengthening the talent pipeline, apprenticeships certainly continue to play a key role in construction, as they have done for centuries. They must now be part of an active learning culture across organisations, however, addressing the vital digital and green skills needed for the next era of construction.
Building valuable long-term skills
The European Union has earmarked 2023 as the European Year of Skills. At the same time, this year’s theme for National Apprenticeship Week in the UK is Skills for Life, emphasising that doing an apprenticeship equips young people for rewarding long-term careers.
Apprenticeships must be more broadly seen as a viable alternative to universities. Not only can apprentices learn on the job and get mentored while being paid, but they can also get a degree qualification if they choose. This message needs to get through – 20% of Gen Z and millennials say unemployment is their biggest concern, according to Deloitte.
Meanwhile, the construction industry is anxious to bridge the skills gap and inject fresh energy into an ageing workforce. According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), the number of people over 60 working in construction is growing faster than any other age group.
Addressing construction’s image problem
A key challenge is the often negative perceptions about careers in construction among young people, teachers, career advisors and parents. “These can include concerns about dirty, unpleasant and dangerous working conditions,” says Dr Avril Behan, Director of the FET College of the Future in Ireland and formerly Dean of the College of Engineering and the Built Environment at TU Dublin.
“Other concerns include: a perceived lack of job security due to the cyclical nature of the sector; a perceived lack of opportunity for growth and promotion; and concerns about low levels of diversity and inclusion for women and under-represented groups.”
A report from the UK-based Sutton Trust in Dec 2021, for example, found 31% of apprentices said better information and support from their school could have encouraged more of their peers to choose an apprenticeship. Moreover, 22% of young apprentices said their friends and family did not support their decision to choose this path.
In our research on the skills shortage in Ireland, Construction in Ireland 2022: Building a workforce for the future, we found 25% of people in construction said the industry seems less attractive than other sectors, with 16% pointing to a limited awareness of career options in the industry and 15% saying construction is seen as a career of last choice for school leavers.
“People often don’t realise the scale, quality and variety of opportunities available,” says Avril. “With innovation, technology, sustainability, business, design and engineering not highlighted when careers in construction are mentioned in schools”.
The industry must communicate, as GoConstruct points out, that contemporary construction is innovative, welcoming and diverse, and enables apprentices to use cutting-edge technology to improve the world around them.
“Construction stakeholders must work collectively to deliver positive messages to the media about successes in the sector and its positive contributions to society,” says Avril.
She adds that schools outreach programmes are also vital, pointing to successful engagement programmes, such as the Irish Construction Industry Federation’s Building the Future schools challenge and the Engineers Ireland Engineering your Future initiative.
Apprenticeships on the up in the UK
While apprenticeships had plummeted in the UK, 2021/2022 marked a sea change, according to research released in January 2023 by Protrade. Between August 2021 and July 2022, about 26,100 new construction apprenticeships began.
That represented a 31% uptick on the previous 12-month period – the first annual increase since 2016/17 – likely due in part to the appeal of construction being seen as more recession-proof than others.
Meanwhile, 10 construction firms were among the top 100 apprenticeship employers in the UK, according to the National Apprenticeship Service.
The need for young talent in construction
The skills shortage will undoubtedly worsen if it’s not addressed. In its Construction Skills Network (CSN) Industry Outlook 2023-2027 (released in January 2023), the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has said it expects 2.67m people to be working in construction in the UK by 2027, meaning an extra 45,000 workers a year are needed.
And as the Cross-industry Construction Apprenticeship Task Force points out, if the industry doesn’t bridge the skills gap, it cannot do its utmost to help address the housing crisis, extend transportation networks and reach Net Zero carbon emission goals, among other potential consequences.
Meanwhile, research released by the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) in January 2023, found vacancies in construction shot up at the end of 2022 while the number of applicants fell, which APSCo said was a worrying sign for the industry. It’s no wonder the RICS found in 2022 that 77% of people in construction were concerned about the availability of labour.
Likewise, in Ireland, 63% of construction companies are struggling to recruit the talent they need, as we discovered in research for our Autodesk Construction Cloud report Construction in Ireland 2022: Building a workforce for the future. It’s not surprising, therefore, that 60% said apprenticeships and will be a high priority over the next two years, with 48% pointing to graduate programmes as another priority.
Many young people are simply unaware of the possibilities available to them in construction today. With careers related to digital technologies becoming an increasingly popular choice for young people, it is important to showcase the opportunities that are available through modernised construction techniques. At J Coffey, we offer internships and work experience opportunities for those interested in gaining hands-on experience of what a career in construction is like. And with this, we offer training and experience with many avenues such as showcasing the value of BIM and how we apply it to our everyday working.” – Aravindh Rajendiran | Head of BIM | J. Coffey Construction Ltd
Mirroring expectations for would-be apprentices
With Gen Z and millennials attaching huge importance to purpose-driven careers, the construction sector can appeal to them by showcasing its key role in developing more sustainable infrastructure.
Likewise, it’s useful to create and highlight individual company initiatives around sustainability, diversity and inclusion. At present, only 15% of those working in construction in the UK are women, with just 6% of the workforce having a disability and 6% being black, Asian or another minority ethnicity, says the CIOB. It’s encouraging employers in the sector to sign up to its equality, diversity and inclusion charter.
Similarly, the industry in Ireland suffers from a lack of diversity, but it’s on the radar for construction companies, with 45% telling Autodesk they’re making diversity and inclusion a priority in the next two years.
Young candidates also expect technology in their working lives by default – so construction companies should consider digital tools as a powerful means of differentiating themselves in a tough talent market.
To that end, the Cross-Industry Construction Apprenticeship Task Force is calling for individual apprenticeship standards and main qualifications to be quickly updated to reflect changes in digital technologies, modern methods, materials and equipment, and green practices. It points out these new modules could also be used to upskill the existing workforce.
While construction companies often depended on personal referrals or tended towards older candidates by default in the past, it’s now crucial to consider how and where roles are advertised to ensure young people apply.
Be mindful of the language you use and the requirements you specify in job ads – showing you’re prepared to make investment hires will appeal to younger candidates, whether you’re a small or large company.
Note the available incentives
Along with Apprenticeship Levy funding, UK employers and training providers can also avail of a further £1,000 each for taking on an apprentice, providing certain conditions are met. Moreover, the CITB offers grants of £2,500 a year to UK employers for apprenticeships, with a further £3,500 achievement grant on completion.
In Ireland, the National Apprenticeship Office is running the One More Job initiative in 2023. This aims to see an additional 500 micro and small businesses in Ireland employing apprentices this year. It will offer expert advice and training for in-company mentors among other supports.
It’s in addition to the state allowance for the off-the-job training periods of craft apprenticeships, the €2,000 Apprenticeship Employer Grant per apprentice per year for other apprenticeships as well as the €2,666 gender bursary and the national Apprenticeship Online facility.
At Autodesk Construction Cloud, we’re celebrating the UK’s National Apprenticeship Week. Last year, we surveyed 200 construction professionals in the UK to understand the state of the industry today and the role talent will play in shaping the future.
Download our full report, UK construction in 2022: Addressing talent challenges for the future workforce