From education to employment

Construction apprenticeships in 2021: What employers are looking for, what’s missing, what’s changed?

Parminder Mew is the owner of Darcy Construction

It has recently been reported that, within the world of construction, apprenticeship numbers have plummeted by a staggering 40%. As a result, industry leaders are calling for the chancellor to give apprenticeships a boost, reigniting interest among young people in construction-based careers.

This decline is undoubtedly a concerning outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic; an unprecedented event which has left young people in a stressful state of uncertainty. Furthermore, it threatens the industry’s proposed ‘built back better’ recovery, according to the Federation of Master Builders.

Why are young people distancing themselves from the construction sector?

How have these apprenticeships changed? What’s missing?

What are employers really looking for following the consequences of Coronavirus?

If we hope to ‘build back better’ and reignite these schemes, such questions must be answered.

Parminder Mew is the owner of Darcy Construction, a business which proudly supports young people’s journeys into construction-based careers. Offering first-hand insight into the realities of changing construction apprenticeships for both employers and learners alike, she’s sharing her expertise:

What’s missing?

As a company we don’t employ direct labour so tiers 1 and 2 don’t apply to us (apprenticeships for entry-level applicants focusing on trade skills). However, as a main contractor, tier 3 plays a huge role in the growth and development of our team.

Unfortunately, tier 3 apprenticeships are currently very limited as careers in construction management aren’t discussed in schools in much depth; the industry is still portrayed to predominantly have opportunities available at trade/entry-level, with many students being taught that it’s ‘university or labour’, with little middle-ground for academic individuals who are eager to pursue senior roles without attending university.

Meanwhile, the many benefits to exploring trade positions are becoming somewhat lost amid the Coronavirus pandemic; young people are understandably overwhelmed, faced with so many different messages and pieces of advice coming their way, and so fewer candidates are putting themselves forward for opportunities in construction.

Over the years we have explored various ways of employing school leavers, however these approaches tend to be most successful for large companies. Smaller businesses like us who would enjoy sharing our knowledge and experience with promising young candidates, and would naturally be able to invest substantial time in these applicants, aren’t considered as often.

These tier 3 apprenticeships are also known as level 4/5 apprenticeships, designed specifically for school and college leavers aged 18+ who would like to pursue highly-skilled positions, creating an exciting pathway into managerial roles. Evidently, lots of young people aren’t aware of these options.

Meanwhile, as Covid-19 has highlighted the importance in finding stability, consistency and security in a job, lots of young people are prioritising careers which allow them to reach senior, managerial positions; little do they know, countless construction apprenticeships which would allow them to fulfil this goal are at their fingertips.

The construction industry is incredibly diverse and we should celebrate this. Trade positions are also very fulfilling for construction workers; it would be great if, moving forward, we continued to communicate the many benefits to working in construction – no matter which area or role you choose to explore.

Similarly, young girls aren’t encouraged to explore careers in construction enough. As a female entrepreneur and business owner, this is something I’m incredibly passionate about improving; recent research shows that only one in eight construction workers nationally are female (12.5%) whilst only 30% of apprentices in construction management, quantity surveying and civil engineering are female. It would be wonderful if we could encourage more young women to enjoy construction-based careers.

What’s changed?

Covid-19 has transformed construction apprenticeships greatly. As an employer I can safely say that every apprentice needs support, advice and time from a supportive member, or members, of the team they’re working alongside.

For those who are enjoying level 4/5 apprenticeships, subsequently taking in on challenging new tasks, accessing the consistent support and communication that would typically be available in an office environment is difficult. As with any industry we’re working from home where possible, relying on Zoom calls and phone calls to communicate. For apprentices, we appreciate this is challenging.

Meanwhile, those who are pursuing level 2 and 3 apprenticeships have, if they haven’t sadly had their studies interrupted or been placed on furlough, been forced to adapt to ever-changing restrictions and regulations on the ground.

We would urge any applicant or current apprentice to seek support if they need it – this is a difficult time and it’s important that young people are prepared for what’s become an increasingly high-pressure environment as construction projects have continued throughout the pandemic.

Fortunately, most employers have remained fully supportive of apprentices in their business; encouraging them to continue online/remote learning where possible, extending apprenticeship periods and generally looking to support more young people wherever possible.

Although, with businesses facing unprecedented challenges themselves, this isn’t easy; we’re all experiencing financial hurdles and as such taking on new apprentices isn’t a leading priority for most.

There were roughly 743,000 people participating in apprenticeships in England in 2018/19, with almost 394,000 new starters in that year alone.

However, six out of 10 employers stopped all new apprenticeships when the Coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, according to the Association of Employment and Learning Providers.

Consequently, apprenticeship starts for 2019/20 were down by 19% compared to the year previous, whilst between March and July 2020 1,033 people in England were withdrawn by apprenticeship programmes because they had been made redundant.

A lot has changed for apprentices, whilst a lot has changed for employers. We must recognise that this recovery will take time; fortunately, that provides us with an invaluable opportunity to communicate the various routes into construction with young people.

To tackle this issue, the government announced incentive payments for employers hiring apprentices last summer; £2,000 for apprentices between the ages of 16 and 24 and £1,500 for those over the age of 25. However, it’s been said that this won’t help SME’s who are struggling with their cashflows. Many small businesses claim they’d need almost three times that amount and, ultimately, their Covid-19 recovery plans remain flexible, meaning forecasting and incorporating apprentices into a business’ plans at the moment is a daunting prospect.

We should still encourage young people to pursue apprenticeships in construction; businesses are doing their best to support young people and those who are taking on new apprenticeships are doing so because, despite their own difficulties, they really do feel that apprenticeships are an investment in the future of this industry.

What are employers looking for?

Apprenticeships are a way of futureproofing the UK workforce, especially within construction – an area with an undeniable skills shortage. Employers who are able to support apprentices are subsequently looking for one thing; passion. We want to know that young people joining this industry are determined to help make it a better, more diverse, resilient and successful space.

At Darcy Construction, we’ve welcomed young people into our team in various ways; from university leavers to apprentices, internships and more, nothing is off limits. These candidates have been incredibly successful and have become valued, respected members of the team, supporting our clients and projects alike.

Moving forward, I look forward to seeing more talented apprentices joining this industry, helping us to grow and flourish after an incredibly difficult year.

Parminder Mew is the owner of Darcy Construction

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