Apprenticeships will help to fill the gap created as workers with civil engineering skills retire, writes Graham Hasting-Evans 

Traditionally formal apprenticeships have by-passed civil engineering — until now.

But all that is changing as the construction industry faces up to a ticking time bomb caused by a skills shortage and an aging workforce.

Make no mistake; the UK construction industry plays an important part in the country’s wealth making, now needed more than ever with the loss of our triple-A rating.

It’s true to say that the industry is one of the few bright spots on the UK economy’s horizon at the moment. Figures for the end of last year from the Office for National Statistics show commercial building, especially in London, has increased.

What’s more, two years ago the UK construction industry’s Gross Value Add (GVA) was £89.5 bn, some 6.7 per cent of total GVA.

The industry is also a major player when it comes to employment. In March last year there were 2.04 million workforce jobs in the UK construction industry, accounting for 6.4 per cent of all workforce jobs.

And as well as being one of our major sectors in the UK, the construction industry has also been a major exporter for nearly a century.

However, there are two distinct parts to the industry — ‘building’ and ‘civil engineering’.

Building is probably the one most people readily identify with, with its bricklayer, plasterers, electricians etc.  Apprenticeships in these skills have a long tradition — hence their industry nickname which refers to them as ‘biblical skills’.

However the civil engineering part is equally as significant.

Rolls-Royce chief, Sir John Rose, said too few British students were studying engineering and science in the UK, hampering efforts to revive industry”

Civil engineering is the part that constructs roads/motorways, bridges, streetlights, railways, airports, waterways, posts/docks, power station, industrial complexes, water supply and sewage facilities.

They form some of the largest investment projects.

Not surprisingly the skills for civil engineering construction have also been around for a long time — remember the Romans used reinforced concrete centuries before it came back into use in Europe.

But a demographic time-bomb is about to be triggered. Many people who have civil engineering skills will be retiring, which means there is a looming skills gap.

The problem is that although the skills have been around for a long time there hasn’t been a history of formal apprenticeships in the way there has in ‘building’.

But now all that is changing.

Formal apprenticeships are now being developed to cover the major civil engineering skills sets, such as plant operations, concreting, steel-fixing and formwork — thanks in no small part to what we’ve been doing here at NOCN.

Naturally the apprenticeship frameworks include the ‘work based’ and ‘knowledge based’ qualifications.

Civil engineering projects are generally ‘heavy engineering’ and therefore people have to be trained and developed in this type of environment.

The training provision, tutors and therefore facilities, are ‘specialist’ and, to be successful they also need to embrace employers’ requirements.

As far back as February 2010 the then Rolls-Royce chief, Sir John Rose, said too few British students were studying engineering and science in the UK, hampering efforts to revive industry.

So there’s no argument that what the employer needs must be at the heart of the training, but to get the best training and qualifications needs partnership working.

NOCN has found this is best achieved by working directly with the employers (the civil engineering companies), specialist and skills training providers and the Sector Skills Council for Construction Skills (SSC).

Our approach is one which is innovative, utilising the flexibility of the Qualifications and Credit Framework to best effect, not only for the younger apprentices coming into the construction industry but for the essential upskilling of those who are still in the workforce.

We believe that this is an exciting period of change, which can bring about a major improvement in the skills within the industry; this can only be successfully achieved by employers, training organisations, the SSC and the awarding organisation working together in a joint team.

Graham Hasting-Evans, managing director, National Open College Network, is working with civil engineering companies and training providers on this initiative