The skills crisis: an MP’s view

The skills shortage has risen to the top of the political agenda, as the parties battle to attract young voters in the run-up to the May general election. Labour MP Steve Rotheram knows more about the issues than many in the House of Commons, as he is a former bricklayer and construction worker. Here’s a speech he gave in the House earlier this month. 

I welcome the opportunity to speak in a debate that is especially close to my heart – and one which I have a deep personal interest in.

Like many others in this place – in just 92 days’ time I will have reached the end of my first term as an MP.

It is still inconceivable in my own mind that I have made it from being an apprentice on a massive building site…to, well, an apprentice on a massive building site – although it has to be said that whilst my political apprenticeship is just about to come to an end, the Palace of Westminster isn’t a bad site in which to go to work in!

Mr Speaker, I have always been an advocate for apprenticeships and am proud of my construction background – which has given me a great insight into the absolute necessity to build on strong foundations.

Vocational training gives people the skills to be able to work both individually – and as part of a team. They are skills I have relied on for most of my adult life, – no more so – than during the last four and three quarter years in this place.

When I walked through the gothic archway that leads into this Chamber for the first time – flanked on either side by the familiar green benches that I’d only ever seen on the telly, I thought I’d be the only brickie in parliament.

But no – not only is the Member for Derby North a former bricklayer, but no less than the Deputy Speaker himself is a time served trowel-carrying member of the building fraternity! (I bet there are some spiders in that tool bag!). And as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death this week, I’m reminded that Winston Churchill also enjoyed laying bricks for a hobby.

Mr Speaker – this debate on apprenticeships is timely and it really matters, given the Sky News – ‘Stand Up and Be Counted’ programme – that was aired recently and which featured Leaders questions on Monday.

It’s relevant because hundreds of thousands of young people are looking to parliament and its members to restore their confidence that we in this place are working in their best interest.

The Prime Minister was challenged by young people on the programme and said, and I quote, “Alright the apprenticeship wage is not that high but the training you get, the experience you get, should lead to a really good job”.

The Prime Minister is partially correct. The experience and qualifications that apprentices get should indeed lead to a really good job, – but for many – he is failing to turn those hopes into a reality.

There is still also a perception by some, that an apprenticeship is an option only for those that are not academically gifted. Unless there is real parity of esteem, apprenticeships will always be the poor cousin of academia.

My party is absolutely right to advocate equality between an apprenticeship and undergraduate degree. And an apprenticeship should be a guaranteed entry into a life in work. But there needs to be greater focus on training people for specific sectors where there is real potential for employment.

Unless there is a real parity of esteem, apprenticeships will always be the poor cousin of academia

According to the Construction Industry Training Board (the CITB), their Construction Skills Forecast predicts that the industry will need over 200,000 new entrants over the life of the next parliament. This is in-part to cope with political priorities (such as those on; housebuilding and road improvements), but also to deal with an ageing workforce – with many workers nearing retirement age.

That means an average of 40,000 construction workers will need to be trained each year and every year.

To put things into context; in the last financial year just over 8,000 individuals completed construction apprenticeships. This represents an actual decline in apprenticeship completers – which spans every single year of this parliament.

And – despite government spin, construction was hit, and continues to be hit, the hardest by the global financial crisis and the government’s austerity measures.

Thousands of workers lost their jobs – or were replaced with cheaper migrant workers – and we have seen the continued casualisation of the industry, with the latest practice of umbrella company’s top-slicing workers’ wages.

That is why I am proud of the campaign led by my union UCATT to stop quick-buck merchants and unscrupulous employers – doing damage to the reputation of the whole industry which puts off many young people from looking at construction as an attractive employment option.

And Mr Speaker – whilst all Political parties go into the next 12 weeks with big promises, there has to be a realisation that construction apprentices need to be trained now, as a matter of urgency.

And the situation is stark. There are a number of factors that require addressing immediately;

  • Careers advice is patchy at best and we need to get away from the perception that construction is only for low achievers
  • Gender imbalances are still acute. Out of the total 13,500 apprenticeship starts last year, only 250 were female
  • And – construction has not – for the best part of a decade now – been an industry that can guarantee secure employment (with the financial stability that brings) – making it unattractive for many young people as first time entrants.

Unless governments are serious about filling the considerable skills shortages that exist in the construction sector now, it will be extremely difficult to deliver those infrastructure promises without importing increasing numbers of skilled workers from abroad – with all of the negative connotations that will be exploited by the likes of UKIP.

We need to urgently transform the way we do apprenticeships in construction in order to build the new houses, schools and office blocks: the new roads and highways improvements: the new GP surgeries and hospitals.

Now Mr Speaker, I believe that the only way to achieve the desired outcome is to instigate a sector specific apprenticeship training programme that maximises opportunities for our young people to take-up those new jobs created as the economy starts to grow.

The government can, and should, transform apprenticeships in construction, by targeting proper apprenticeships. Not the watered-down short-term training schemes that are often included in this government’s figures to inflate the numbers of people purportedly on apprenticeships.

No, – Mr Speaker – proper three-year quality programmes, like those of many of our international competitors. They must be industry-led vocational training that is sector specific and occupationally relevant to new job opportunities – that include technical certificates, – all tailored to employers’ needs.

Too often in this parliament I have heard MPs on the benches opposite bandy figures round like confetti to claim this government has created thousands more apprenticeships for young people when it is simply not the case.

According to the Association of Colleges, the actual number of under-19 starts is pretty much back to where we were in 2009/10.

And – the Minister has himself admitted to me in written answers that the average length of an apprenticeship under this government is just 10 months.

That isn’t an apprenticeship by the traditional measurement – and ends up devaluing the brand.

And I’d ask anyone on that side of the House, whether they really believe that apprentices can become competent in their chosen field in just 10 months? Would the Prime Minister let someone build an extension on one of his houses with just 10 months training under their belt? I doubt it?

Whilst the government funding rate for 16 to 17 year old apprenticeships has stayed at about £4,000, the cut in the 18 year old rate has caused providers difficulties – but the reduction in the 19-23 year old cohort has caused FE institutions a real dilemma. It costs the same amount to train a first time entrant to get to NVQ level 2 and 3 (no matter what their age), but providers will only receive half the funding for the 19 plus cohort.

As the Minister will also know, there are different tariffs as it costs more to train an apprentice in some occupational areas than in others. If we want to encourage colleges and training providers to increase apprenticeship numbers in specific professions such as construction, then we will need to address costs.

To illustrate this issue – Plastering for example is expensive to deliver – and whilst lime mortar is often used to practice – with as a bonding coat, – finish plaster is expensive and once used can’t be reused. So we should recognise the delivery costs to colleges and training providers when planning future funding allocations.

In addition, the number of training centres offering certain apprenticeships has declined. If we don’t plan a phased approach to the future employment needs identified in skills forecasts – we will simply exacerbate current shortages in areas like construction. We need a joined-up approach across government departments to maximise jobs, training and apprenticeship opportunities.

Other major considerations – when looking at increasing construction apprenticeship numbers – are that many colleges and training providers have often walked away from delivering more expensive courses and opted for programmes that are more cost effective.

Once workshops are converted for other usages, it is very costly for training providers to change them back for construction training purposes.

And – if – construction provision is increased to meet the anticipated demand forecast by the CITB over the next 5 years – the other factor that is often overlooked is the requirement for tutors to have not only, the right qualifications, but the relevant occupational experience to be able to deliver high quality training to apprentices. All of this needs to be factored in to ensure we have the workshops and appropriate staff available to deliver the much-needed growth in apprenticeship numbers.

Would the Prime Minister let someone build an extension on one of his houses with just 10 months training under their belt?

Until these specific areas are looked at, planned for – and real solutions offered, the number of apprentices required for specific trade areas will not be fulfilled and a massive opportunity to train people with skills for life – and for real, long-term, stable jobs – will be lost.

Mr Speaker, there are additional pressures on businesses and training providers that I could allude to – specifically in relation to the burden of paperwork and administration that coincides with the recruitment of an apprentices, but I want to make one final point.

I’m enormously proud of my party’s record on defending, creating and promoting apprenticeships.

As the Right Honourable Member for South Holland and The Deepings confirmed in the House to me in 2011 – apprenticeships rose nationally from a mere 65,000 in 1997 to a quarter of a million on Labour’s watch by 2010.

In fact – as someone who was a former employee of the Learning and Skills Council, it sticks in the craw to hear some Tory MPs – who almost killed off apprenticeships under Thatcher and Major – now celebrate the cynical rebranding of work experience as apprenticeships in 2015.

On the one hand the Tories and Lib Dems tell us there are more apprenticeships than ever and more young people are entering the world of work. And yet on the other hand in some of the country’s most deprived economic areas, the rate of apprenticeship starts has consistently declined.

In my own constituency of Liverpool Walton, I have seen a fall in every single year of this government, with a reduction of apprenticeships by a huge 32%.

Mr Speaker, somewhere, somehow, something has gone wrong.

I know my own Party has advanced plans on linking procurement to the creation of apprenticeships – and I believe our joined-up thinking will pay dividends – and will reaffirms our commitment to proper apprenticeships.

Our jobs guarantee and apprenticeship proposals are not only good news for young people entering the jobs market, but will also act as an antidote to the poison sold by UKIP that migrant labour in the construction sector is the fault of the EU or Johnny Foreigner.

If we prioritise vacancies for local people through local labour clauses – plan apprenticeships around development opportunities and cultivate local supply chains – we can counter their divisive messages.

I firmly believe that Governments can change the circumstances of ordinary working people for the better.

Mr Speaker – we have some proud apprenticeship traditions in this country – especially in areas like the construction industry. In just 92 days, a new Labour Government will give hope to a young generation looking for high quality skills, training and employment with our costed apprenticeship plans – and I hope I am returned to this place to witness it.

Source: Steve Rotheram MP

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