Another year, another construction report on future skills. And what does this one say about further education? ‘Construction and its associated professions need to work harder to engage and excite future generations to seek a career in the industry.’
Common parlance, but we must dig deeper to look at the practicalities of how this might work.
Attracting young people to apprenticeships and persuading businesses to employ them has been a conundrum stretching back over decades, certainly across the 27 years I’ve been involved in high-level skills development.
The Building the Future commission’s new report highlights areas of concern, and they’re worth repeating. First, that construction’s reputation is a barrier; The best and the brightest only turn to it as a last resort. Second, career path silos needlessly block progression; greater collaboration would help everyone. Third, getting a foothold in various professions is prohibitively costly; earn-as-you learn should be rolled out more broadly.
The report’s key recommendations for education and skills are as follows:
- An audit of all educational standards (including apprenticeships) to ensure they are fit for purpose.
- A long-term project to ensure flexible routes into all aspects of the built environment, with new cross-industry qualifications to facilitate greater movement of workers.
- A government strategy for vocational education lasting up to two decades.
Noble intentions, but at the moment there is not a lot of stability in the educational sector, little appetite for collaboration in parliament, and anyway we ought to be focusing on finessing the basics over a shorter timescale.
Employers, particularly those of smaller companies, are often unaware of what’s involved if they want to take on an apprentice. Instead of ministers imposing solutions from above, I suggest that they consider helping colleges now to become the go-to place for finding out.
What do I mean by this? Simply that silo learning is ingrained in the educational sector; they offer an apprenticeship in this, a diploma in that, and any employer requiring a concoction of skills wouldn’t know where to turn.
The answer is to make the FE network itself the font of information so that when they engage in a conversation about cross-skill qualifications, an employer can trust an educator’s advice. Flexibility is the keyword.
I wholeheartedly agree, for instance, with the recent observations in FE Week by Graham Hasting-Evans, chief executive of NOCN Group. He says that our skills system, designed for larger programmes such as apprenticeships and T levels, is not suitable for the dynamic and ever-changing situation of green skills and digital innovation.
As the UK heads towards net zero, there will be job opportunities in construction that we haven’t even considered yet and education needs to be fleet-of-foot to accommodate them.
So why not start by putting educators firmly at the heart of construction recruitment by persuading employers to make use of the variety of resources at a college’s disposal? A small change in attitude, and a big step for construction recruitment.
But our education system is like a jigsaw with two-thirds of the pieces already in place. It would be madness to break up what’s there and start again because the finished picture isn’t perfect. Instead, we must add pieces to make the picture clearer.
So with further education. We should be building on all the good work of those who guide young people towards fulfilling construction careers. Make colleges not just a place of learning and a hub for careers advice for young people, but a centre of advice for employers too – a knowledge and skills exchange.
Most of all, ministers must work with education leaders now rather than redirecting all their resources into sweeping audits lasting decades. These recommendations are perfectly well-intentioned, but in the end the real solutions will be incremental and ground-up. The best thing ministers can do is facilitate a way of systematizing that – for construction, and all the other sectors struggling to fill workforce gaps.