From education to employment

Apprenticeships: Not always the answer

Steve Sugden

A young person looking to enter the construction industry generally has two routes, personal contacts/word of mouth, or through an apprenticeship. If that young person is defined as NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) things become a whole lot more complicated. 

This piece looks at the issues for NEETs in taking on an apprenticeship and I should state here that all views are my own, based on research for my Masters dissertation (Sugden, 2020), and in no way represent the views of my current employer. 

The problem

It is commonly accepted that construction is, and has for many years, been in the midst of a skills crisis, failing to attract the numbers of young people across all levels to address this. The recent Cast (2020) report has suggested that in the short term this could be hidden by a slow, post-Covid, return to full capacity, which may also temporarily hide the potential skills drain following Brexit. 

The problem will once again raise its head as normality returns, especially if it is to meet the current governments promises that it will invest heavily in infrastructure and public sector projects. In order to address this construction needs to look further afield in who it attracts, and into what.

The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (2020) identified 771,000 young people classed as NEET, with 41.6% looking for work, that is around 321,000 potential employees. The CIOB, in response to the 2014 parliamentary inquiry, suggested that the construction industry could take between 75-100,000 of the, then, one million NEETs. The problem is that the two main routes in are not NEET friendly and my research identified two main reasons why, for many NEETs, apprenticeships are not the answer. 

The negative educational experience

Often, NEETs have had a disrupted, or negative experience of education, many leaving education early or without qualifications. The current apprenticeship standards rely on the end-point-assessment, a final exam, as the method to confirm competence, with the completion of an apprenticeship solely focused on the successful achievement of this. A young person, who has not previously had a positive experience of education, or who has not been successful in previously gaining qualifications, may be dissuaded from considering an apprenticeship due to the fact that their success will rest solely on this single event. These young people may also associate the 20% off-the-job training as a return to education, and as such reject the opportunity for the fear of repeating their negative experience.

While many apprenticeships no longer include a qualification, there is a requirement, for a Level 2 apprentice to achieve a Level 1 in maths and English, and to have taken both at Level 2 before they can complete. During my research an employer spoke about how they had previously had young people who were excellent bricklayers, but never able to complete their apprenticeship due to not achieving their Level 1 in maths or English. Where education had not been a positive experience being unable to complete an apprenticeship due to this would reinforce that young person’s negative views.


Financial implications also factor in NEETs not considering apprenticeships. Underlying factors to someone becoming NEET can include being an ex-offender, care leaver or lone parent. Large numbers of these will be living alone with sole responsibility for their outgoings. It should be noted that many construction employers pay over the minimum apprenticeship wage, but the thought that, if over 18, you may only earn £6.45 an hour, taking home £220.58 for a 35-hour week (£159.25 if they are under 18), will dissuade many from considering. 

A quick search showed the lowest rate for a single room in Bristol is £115 per week. This would leave £105 to pay for bills, food and household items, travel, clothing, and likely leaving very little, if any, money for a social life. If the NEET is also a lone parent then the cost of child care alone would most likely mean an apprenticeship was a non-starter.  In reality, any young person taking on an apprenticeship can only do so with the support of the bank of mum and dad, something many NEETs have no access to. 

An alternative approach

As part of the research I offered alternative engagement ideas for consideration. These included paid work experience which was viewed favourably by respondents. As I was completing this piece the chancellor announced a £2bn Kickstart scheme. This will provide funding for six-month work, non-apprenticeship, placements for 16-24-year-olds. They must be new jobs, not backfilling existing vacancies that would otherwise have been recruited to, with the government covering 25 hours per week at minimum wage, though employers can top up. 

Another idea was also proposed, which had varying responses, some suggesting that construction no longer worked in this way while others suggesting these roles still exist. This was the idea of job carving, removing the non-skilled tasks of a job role to create a new position, a support operative, who would work alongside the skilled operative. This would allow the skilled operative to focus on the main areas of work while the support operative assisted, in theory improving on productivity. This idea has previously been used to create roles for individuals with disabilities, supporting them into work. This role would provide someone new to the sector with the opportunity to gain insight before committing, develop the employability skills employers look for, all while earning a wage. Alongside that it would provide employers with a chance to ensure that the young person was committed. 

A Kickstarter scheme for construction

My conclusions identified that employers felt a support operative role, on paid work experience, along with support for SMEs, would be the ideal way to introduce NEETs into the industry.  The chancellor’s announcement today could make that a reality. There is still the issue of pay, but allowing employers to top up could bring that up to a living wage. The research posed the question on how the alternative ideas could be funded, with central government and the CITB levy being the favoured options. The announcement of the Kickstart programme could be seen as governments input, maybe CITB could match fund by waving the levy for those that engage with the programme, offsetting their financial commitment? Essentially providing employers with new entrants for six months for at no cost.

Clearly there are other considerations before this can happen, the need for a CSCS card for example. Perhaps, as these will be roles that work alongside a skilled operative, the Construction Leadership Council and CSCS could agree a temporary Kickstart CSCS card? It would be possible to quickly develop short course training, favoured by NEETs, on health and safety and provide an overview of their area of work prior to starting and in order to help them make the most of opportunities in the construction industry. 

An additional benefit construction would gain by adopting NEET engagement programme would be to improve diversity in the industry. Among the factors that indicate a risk of being NEET is people from some BAME backgrounds, gender and disability, all groups sadly under-represented in the industry.

To make this a reality construction has to act fast but this could present an ideal opportunity for the industry to engage with NEETs, and a small step towards addressing the skills crisis. Allowing NEETs the opportunity to experience the industry before committing should improve retention, and providing them with an practical understanding of the role may encourage those, who previously would not have considered an apprenticeship, to go down that path.

Steve Sugden


Cast Consultancy (2020): The Coronavirus Impact: A new Paradigm.

Office of National Statistics (2020): Young people not in education, employment or training (NEET), UK: May 2020.

Sugden, S. (2019): Identifying barriers to the employment of young people classified as not in education, employment or training within the construction sector.,_employment_or_training_within_the_construction_sector

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