From education to employment

Construction Training in a Pandemic

Steve Sugden

Along with pretty much every other sector, COVID required construction training to adapt quickly and innovatively. Seven months on from lockdown and four from its easing, seems a good time to look at what happened. To help prepare this I have spoken to a number of colleagues, both in private training centres and colleges, with many years’ experience in delivering trade-based courses.

As usual these are my own views and not necessarily those of my current employer.

Before COVID

Put simply, there are three main routes into construction, each with differing training requirements. You have entry level roles, labourers, plant operators etc., not saying these are unskilled roles but, in terms of training, learners can be site ready after one or two short courses. Next are the trades, more often than not gained by completing an apprenticeship or gaining an NVQ. Lastly the professional roles, your project managers, quantity surveyors or structural engineers, accessed through higher level apprenticeships or degrees.

Training is delivered both with a provider and in the workplace. The provider would focus on the knowledge and an introduction to skills. While, if a learner is following an apprenticeship, their skills, and evidence of competence would be generated in the workplace. You also have two types of learner, those employed, or those on a study programme, learning a trade without related employment.

In relation to apprenticeships, we are now have standards where attainment requires the successful completion of an end point assessment, with very few Level 2 or 3 apprenticeships having any form of qualification.  Instead apprentices reach a gateway, where the employer and training provider agree they are meeting the required standard, and take an end-point-test. For most construction trades this consists of a multiple-choice knowledge test, practical tasks and interview.


On March 23rd the UK went into lockdown and, although it had been clear this was coming, to quote one colleague, ‘everything stopped, we were shell-shocked’. There would never be a good time for this but many learners, especially those on a study programme, were approaching completion of their courses. This put the brakes on all end-of-year assessment and centres had to act quickly to identify how they could continue to engage and assess learners so they could complete their studies. 

Ofqual suggested three main options for assessment. Firstly assessment could be based on work completed to date. Secondly providers could adapt assessment to enable remote completion, or thirdly they could defer the award until centres could resume delivery. For the lucky few, those who had already produced sufficient evidence, this was fairly straightforward, and fortunately not impacted by the GCSE debacle. That said, there were still significant numbers who required additional evidence.

Where there was still a need for teaching this could only be carried out remotely, an option for knowledge delivery but very limiting in relation to skills instruction and assessment. Speaking with colleagues on the front line this has been a steep learning curve. It was quickly apparent that, for knowledge teaching at least, centres could use live or recorded online delivery. While the means for this have been available for some time it is not how vocational qualifications have been traditionally delivered, meaning centres had to get staff up to speed quickly. Construction tutors are very practical, they understand their trade and can deliver brilliant instruction for the practical skills. That said, and speaking from experience, IT is often not in their comfort zone, just try getting them to write a lesson plan! 

On the positive side, one colleague said that what had really impressed him was how quickly his trainers had developed the skills needed to deliver teaching remotely, to paraphrase Kotter, the pandemic created an urgency for change. In addition to the streamed training sessions, centres developed online learning resources such as narrated presentations, videos and tests.  In many ways this reaction is unsurprising; if there is one thing that those in the industry do well is react quickly to a crisis, consider the Nightingale Hospitals. 

One major obstacle was learners’ ability to engage with this method as it required the means to access online content.  While most of us take it for granted, there are still many homes that do not have an internet service, either due to not having the financial security to be able to afford it, or, especially in more rural areas, having limited or no service to their home. In addition, not every young person has access to computers and impressive as phones are today, they are not an ideal tool to complete all your work on.

The government did acknowledge this and announced that they would ensure that every learner without access to the internet would be provided with a laptop and dongle. Sadly, this has only ever really materialised in very limited numbers, and it has just been announced that they are cutting this commitment by 80%. Additionally, and this is can be the case in the more rural areas, a laptop and dongle will only work if you have a 4G signal of sufficient strength. I am only 10 miles from Bristol and there are still areas around here with weak or no signal.

These issues aside, digital delivery worked well for teaching and assessing knowledge. One tutor I spoke to said they felt that learners were more engaged using this method. The downside is that it was less useful for teaching skills. Centres could produce, and some have, videos and presentations that show learners how a task is carried out but, unless learners have a full workshop at home, they are not able to demonstrate their skills for assessment. 

This is different for those on apprenticeships. People I spoke to said how they have used video calling to observe an apprentice carrying out a task in the workplace and been able to question them about it in real time. This has had its own issues, on many sites phones are banned and so permission is required. Also, the employer needs to release someone to hold the phone and be able to follow the assessor’s instructions on what they want to view. This method is only really relevant for those apprentices still following the old framework apprenticeships, or one of the few apprenticeship standards that currently retain an NVQ.  

While many centres have been creative in adapting and adopting new methods there have also been issues, especially where centres have had to furlough staff, in the worst cases leaving learners in limbo. One colleague sounded a word of caution, and I should stress this is third hand, that he was aware of tutors being told to ‘find’ evidence. This presents a problem for awarding bodies who, having worked hard to adapt assessment methods while ensuring they remained valid, need to be extra vigilant when quality assuring work.

The New Normal

As we move into a socially distanced norm, learners have been able to return centres, albeit in smaller groups. The feedback I had suggests that the delivery of knowledge training though online methods has worked well. It was also suggested that some will retain this method as opposed to bringing students in for classroom sessions. Some centres have also added additional practical sessions to support learners who still need to complete work. 

The ability to return to centres has meant that those following an apprenticeship standard can complete their end-point assessment. While those on a framework could have completed through a mixture of online learning and assessment with videoed evidence from the workplace, those on the standards have had to wait until they could return to an assessment centre for the practical element. It has been possible to deliver the knowledge tests and interviews online, though, for some standards the interview must take place after the practical.

While we hope this never happens again there will always be a risk and maybe it is worth considering what could be done in such an event to manage delays in completion. Just an idea, could practical skills be evidenced through real work experience, and measured against new, more robust NVQs, instead of a centre based practical? The EPA could then consist of the knowledge test and professional discussion.  A number of employers have said that workplace generated evidence is a far better indicator of ability than that produced in a one-off, controlled practical, though I suspect the IFATE would view it differently.

Another issue identified with the practical training is the use of tools and equipment. Previously learners just collected the tools they needed for each session. With the way that COVID is transmitted this would carry obvious risks and centres have had to implement methods to reduce or remove this. Some centres have had the luxury of being well equipped, and have been able to provide each learner with their own tool kit, while for those centres less well-resourced learners have had to supply their own, often expensive, tools. 

Learners have also had to supply their own personal protective equipment but there is still the need for larger equipment, drills, mixers, joinery machinery etc. Here centres have had to produce risk assessments detailing how risks of transmission are mitigated. This usually requires a learner, or technician, cleaning equipment prior to use and once they have finished. 

This has all added costs to delivery, with the extra tools, cleaning resources, time, facilities etc. Where a learner had been due to complete in the summer, centres will have already pulled down the funding. Those I spoke with were unclear if there would be additional funding available to cover the extra requirements.

Looking forward

Eventually things will return to a less socially distanced norm, but it does seem that these last seven months have provided the sector with the opportunity to look at how delivery could be brought into the 21st century.  A number of those colleagues I spoke with have suggested that the increased use online delivery and materials, especially for knowledge, will continue. This will improve as centres develop more and better resources. These resources may even be used to generate income with those centres quickest off the mark t licensing resources to others.

It was also suggested that the use of online delivery gives centres the opportunity to widen their learner base, no longer limited to their catchment area, especially if skills could be evidenced and assessed in the workplace using video calling. It was also felt that this could be a more attractive way to offer CPD and upskilling for site-based workers. Employers just needing to provide the means for staff to access sessions on site as opposed to losing them for a day to attend a centre.

One centre said that applications to their study programmes had gone through the roof since reopening but, in terms of apprenticeships, things are not looking so good, nearly 50% down on last year. This is on the back of the already reduced uptake for apprenticeships at Levels 2 and 3. During the lockdown a large number of construction apprentices were either furloughed or let go and it appears that employers are still holding back on reinstatement or recruitment. 

Hopefully this will only be in the short-term, COVID has had a major impact on construction but, post-lockdown, and with clear guidance from the Construction Leadership Council, the sector is recovering. Things will improve, and not only will currently planned projects be up and running but word from government indicates that there will be increased job opportunities, including 120,000 in building upgrades and potentially 1,000,000 by 2050 in new green jobs.

Construction is a sector that struggles to attract talent, a YouGov survey in 2015 showed that only 3% of young people actively search for roles in the industry. Construction training, like the sector itself, has often been accused of being resistant to change. Maybe the move to 21st century delivery, forced by the current situation, could offer an engaging selling point to increase interest? 

Steve Sugden

Related Articles