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Comment | Industry must wake up to apprentices

Apprentices, Transport for London

Employers are asleep at the wheel. That’s the accusation being levelled not-so-subtly by the government at the bulk of civil engineering’s clients, consultants and contractors when it comes to developing apprentices.

From March, firms winning contracts with Highways England and Network Rail must either create one apprenticeship for every £3M to £5M of taxpayers’ money spent, or deliver a percentage increase in the number of apprentices employed each year during the lifetime of a project. The overall aim is to have apprenticeships make up 2.5% of the workforce.

The clear message is that targets such as these are needed because the industry has failed to show the leadership demanded of government; a government that has set its own ambitious apprenticeship targets.

That’s, lest we forget, that 3M apprenticeships will have started by 2020.

This week’s announcement is aimed squarely at the road and rail sectors where ministers want  30,000 apprenticeships created by 2020. It’s the first major output from the transport infrastructure skills strategy being masterminded by Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan.

Crossrail has led the way in creating apprenticeships. The project has already created more than 485 apprenticeships to date. And Morgan – a former apprentice himself – has no truck for those who think apprentices are someone else’s problem.

Late last year Morgan led a New Civil Engineer debate centred on the responsibilities for attracting new talent into the industry. He made it abundantly clear that – in his view – some very large players are shirking their responsibilities.

“The very big public contracts that come out of the public sector are substantive game-changers and there are some huge projects that don’t have a skills agenda attached to them in terms of insisting that the supply chain actually make a full commitment,” he said.

“The better [firms] do it naturally but there will be some who are … not making a commitment who will think they have a choice. And I don’t think on this particular subject they have a choice.”

Now, thanks to this week’s announcement, they do not.

And that surely is a very good thing.

But – and it is a big but – where will these apprentices come from?

Clearly 3M apprentices overall and 30,000 in highways and rail is a lot.

Clearly we need to look broader than our conventional talent pool when it comes to finding these apprentices.

This is something that the industry is beginning to grasp – and some employers are showing leadership.

At the same debate that Morgan outlined his frustrations, Costain managing director for infrastructure Darren James stressed this need to look for different skillsets.

“We haven’t even begun to tap into the sort of people that would love to join this industry because there are adjacent skills sets, adjacent attitudes and aptitudes, that we could absolutely harness,” he said.

“There’s absolutely, in my mind, no shortage of potential skills. What we’re doing in the way we behave is not enabling those skills to come into the industry.”

So this is the challenge – to properly develop programmes that bring in the broadest range of skillsets possible.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Getting the right people into the right jobs i.e. graduates away from CAD and technicians as a strong base to the workforce is something that has been an issue for the industry for too long. There are employers that have been working to change the balance but it takes time and investment.
    Kids that don't have the aptitude for university (I was one) need to be directed to alternatives of work and day release so that they can develop their expertise within an excellent career path. This industry of ours gives opportunities to those who want them from the day we start out to the day we retire.

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