Union warns that there will be no`build, build, build’ unless government acts to avert construction apprenticeship crisis

he prime minister’s recent promise to `build, build, build’ the UK back to economic health will not be `get very far’ unless urgent action is taken to avert a crisis in skills and apprenticeship development, the country’s leading construction union has claimed today Monday 6 July .

Lethal combination

Unite the union says that a lethal combination of employers’ long-standing reluctance to invest in apprentices, allied to widespread redundancies because of the pandemic and a reluctance to recruit new entrants due to the ongoing economic uncertainty, is likely to result in there being 20,000 fewer apprentices across the sector this autumn, vastly down from the 47,284 in England last year (2019).

Industry forecasts have also indicated that there will be a sharp decline in the construction apprenticeship intake this autumn. Without the skills needed to support the sector, Unite fears that some construction contracts will have to be cancelled placing more construction workers on the dole.

Redundancy fears

The union also understands that at least 50 per cent of electrical construction apprentices are currently furloughed, with growing concerns that as the job retention scheme winds down they will be made redundant.

Such is the union’s concern, it has written to the chancellor Rishi Sunak requesting that the Chancellor uses his upcoming economic statement to “implement without delay economic policies that can help save existing construction apprenticeship jobs and ensure the summer 2020 intake of construction apprentices is of a level to meet the industry’s future needs.”

Failure to recruit

For decades the construction industry has failed to recruit and train sufficient apprentices but the skills crisis has been masked by the heavy reliance on migrant labour.  However, with changes to government policy on immigration that option will no longer be so easily available.

Additionally, construction has an ageing workforce and many workers are forced to leave the industry before state retirement age due to illness or injury.

Workforce needed

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “The prime minister’s pledge to build, build, build the country’s way out of this pandemic-caused crisis won’t get very far without a workforce.

“Construction apprenticeship training is in danger of collapsing as an after-effect of the pandemic, which is why we’re calling on the chancellor to make it clear when he announces his plans for recovering the economy this coming week that our young workers will be given a chance of a career in construction.

“At the moment, for every one good quality apprenticeship, there are one thousand applicants. Young workers have to scale this huge mountain so it is only right that they have the chance to complete their apprenticeship and have a job at the end of their training. 

“Furthermore, without these young skilled workers the industry will struggle to recover from the recession as contracts will be cancelled because there is a serious lack of expert workers.

“There has been a long-term skills and training crisis in the construction sector but the Covid-19 pandemic along with the changes to immigration law have brought this to a head.

 “Unite is working closely with responsible employers and trade associations in order to tackle the challenges on apprentice recruitment but to really conquer the challenges we face, the government must step in to support existing apprentices and ensure that new recruits will have a pathway into construction employment.”

Action required

Unite is calling for the chancellor and the government to adopt the following measures:

  • Extension of apprentice wage support to safeguard jobs
  • Repurposing of the apprenticeship levy funds to fund all first year apprentices’ pay
  • Public sector procurement policies that ensure the recruitment of high quality apprentice
  • The extension of the job guarantee scheme so that apprentice opportunities are delivered in public-funded infrastructure projects.

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