Why apprentices are key to Boris' 'Build, Build, Build' message

Following Boris Johnson’s new ‘build, build, build’ deal – which puts infrastructure at the centre of the government’s economic growth strategy – the development and success of the UK’s construction sector has never been more important. With the burden of the current economic crisis resting firmly on its shoulders, it’s time for the construction industry to properly invest in apprentices and trainees to secure the future of the sector and, with it, the stability of the nation – according to Mark Wakeford, joint managing director at Stepnell.

In recent years, the sector has seen a growing emphasis placed on the importance of upskilling the next generation with government-backed schemes and campaigns in full force. In the midst of Covid-19 this has only accelerated since the threat of furlough and widespread redundancies placed apprenticeship schemes at risk of dissolution.

With businesses struggling to come to terms with the new economic landscape and forecasting for a future that remains, for the most part, a mystery, it’s easy to understand why trainee programmes are not at the top of everyone’s list of priorities.

However, putting these programmes on the back burner could be detrimental to not only the industry itself, but economic recovery in general. After the Prime Minister announced his latest plans to reboot the British economy through development and infrastructure, the need to invest in a new generation of construction workers has never been more critical.

Mark Wakeford, joint MD of construction firm Stepnell – a company that has complied with Government policy in the recent months to stay on site throughout lockdown – believes that bringing the next generation into the industry is crucial, particularly given the current climate.

“It is vital that the industry continues to develop and attract young, skilled workers, who are driven to succeed, learn and grow, and really care about doing a good job. With nearly ten per cent of staff in each of our regions holding a position as an apprentice or trainee, our teams are passionate to support future generations of construction specialists.”

From ‘build, build, build’ to ‘train, train, train’

The abundance of new government legislation that has been introduced to make this investment in young people attractive to businesses post-Covid, highlights the importance of training schemes and programmes in the current climate.

In July 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced his £2 billion ‘kickstart scheme’ which aimed to create more jobs for young people who were hit hard by the pandemic. The fund subsidised six-month work placements and pledged to provide 30,000 new traineeships for young people in England, offering firms £1,000 for each new work experience place they provide.

Sunak also committed to supporting 18 and 19-year-olds leaving school or college to find work in high-demand sectors like engineering and construction by providing £100 million to create more places on level two and three courses. Under Sunak’s new scheme, businesses will also be given £2,000 for each new apprentice they hire under the age of 25 to increase the amount of apprentice schemes running in the UK.

Mark added: “It is great that the Government is supporting younger people who want to pursue a career in construction as well as offering financial commitment to companies that offer apprentice schemes and understand the importance of upskilling.

“We are currently supporting young people to achieve accredited university degrees through to NVQ’s and professional qualifications within construction management, quantity surveying, design management, sustainability and construction planning. Despite lockdown and the challenging economic landscape, this investment has, and will continue, at Stepnell. It’s vital that we can keep encouraging young people to enter the sector and learn crucial skills to support the future of our business and the industry as a whole.”

Mark believes that construction companies should be open to exploring new areas when it comes to apprenticeship schemes and they should dedicate the time to listen to the younger generation and what it is that they want.

For example, one of Stepnell’s current apprentices found a passion for using technology on site with the use of the Viewpoint Field View mobile application which allows the capture of real-time field data  on site. This allowed the apprentice to become a ‘Field View champion’ giving them a high-level of responsibility to visit a variety of sites across the country to record data and teach senior members of staff how best to use the application.

“If an apprentice or trainee has a specialism or a key area of interest, we want to support that, especially if we can use it to our advantage. I think it is important that apprentices and trainees are given a high-level of responsibility, are client facing, and are challenged daily,” said Mark.

Stepnell’s Emerging Talent programme is central to maximising the company’s intake of graduates, trainees, apprenticeships and placement candidates. The programme offers tailored solutions and support to trainees in their chosen areas of expertise, encouraging development and finding their strengths through formal mentorship programmes. It also includes six-month reviews, on-going support and the opportunity to gain recognised qualifications.

Kieran Gubbins, assistant quantity surveyor at Stepnell, has recently graduated from Nottingham Trent University and has been part of its Emerging Talent programme since January 2018.

Kieran said: “During my time as a Stepnell trainee, I have been able to work as a team assisting with multi-million-pound projects and I’ve also been given the opportunity to run my own projects with the support of others. It is great that I have been given that level of responsibility, which is often where trainees can get de-motivated if they are not actively involved or given that element of trust.

“I think it is important that young people are supported in the industry, particularly as a lot of knowledge can often lie with the older generation – it is an aging workforce and therefore essential that young people can drive the future of the sector, bringing new technologies and new ways of learning with them.”

A post-lockdown priority

Throughout lockdown, Stepnell continued working on site, responsibly, safely and crucially,to Public Health Guidelines which was largely due to the way the company had traditionally and successfully managed its sites and employees.

Mark said: “We were forced to consider new ways of working for our staff and subcontractor partners to keep the site moving and keeping everyone safe. This also meant that we needed to continue developing our apprentices and trainees, despite the challenging times, to make sure they felt supported and valued, with on-going communication.”

Luke Beardsmore is a year out placement student who has just completed 12 months work experience with Stepnell and will now be going back to Nottingham Trent University to complete his course in BSc Construction Management.  Luke is being sponsored in his final year and will join the company as an assistant site manager once he graduates.

Luke said: “Throughout lockdown, I really had to step up into my role in site management as I was given a lot more responsibility due to other staff being furloughed. I was thrown into the deep end, which has been hugely beneficial for my development and confidence.

“There is often an assumption that apprentices and trainees make the tea and do the admin jobs, but I have been given a huge amount of responsibility from working on site and watching my managers solve problems and deal with unexpected challenges.”

With the construction industry facing its biggest skills shortage yet, it’s more important than ever that the industry looks for new talent. Getting young people, especially women, into construction roles has historically been an issue. It is an industry that is undesirable to many young people, often associated with hard hats, heavy machinery and manual labour.

Luke added: “There wasn’t a lot of information about the construction industry when I was choosing my career path at school. I think there needs to be more awareness about the different aspects and elements to construction to encourage the younger generation to get involved. People need to listen to the younger workforce – we are hungry and passionate to succeed, and we want the opportunity to learn as much as we can.”

Despite being one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, the industry still needs to do more to attract the future talent and shout about the range of career opportunities that it can offer, as well as the hands-on experience through apprenticeship and trainee schemes.

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