Skills: Flex Apprenticeship Levy – speed up standards, says Laing O'Rourke

John O'Connor

Government's plans for solving the nation's construction skills crisis are being held up by painful and problematic development of new apprenticeship standards and a lack of flexibility within the Apprenticeship Levy, according to a new report from Laing O'Rourke. The Levy should be directed at meeting employer needs rather than just focused on attracting as many apprentices as possible, says the contractor. Laing O'Rourke also reports that its efforts to develop standards with industry partners are being frustrated by frequent changes to policy guidance and a lack of providers of final assessments.

This bleak outlook comes from Laing O'Rourke's 'Ten-point plan to overcome the UK's construction and infrastructure skills gap'; which highlights the industry's skills crisis and critical problems within government's attempts to address it.

Government's Trailblazer reform of apprenticeship standards was launched more than two years ago with around 150 different new construction sector qualifications needed, but so far only three new standards have been approved for apprenticeships in the construction sector. "For progress around Trailblazer Apprenticeships to be maintained, it is vital for government to immediately review the sign-off and assessment processes, significantly reducing the time taken to approve standards and ensure that a registered assessment organisation is in place,' the report says.

Laing O’Rourke’s group human capital director, John O'Connor, said: “Our plan highlights that there is a worrying skills shortage in the UK construction and engineering sectors and presents a clear series of practical recommendations to help close the skills gap in the design, manufacturing, engineering and construction spaces.”

Among its other recommendations, Laing O'Rourke is calling for regionally focused 'skills pipelines' to close a gap between major projects and the provision and locality of skills centres for training the people these projects will need. The contractor also says the Deparrtment for Education should support development of GCSEs and A-level qualifications in 'Design, Engineer and Construct' (DEC). 

These recommendations follow publication of the Farmer Review, carried out by Mark Farmer for the Construction Leadership Council. Mark Farmer said: "My recommendations are centred on being able to improve productivity and predictability whilst making the industry more attractive to new entrants through a digital engineering led education, skills development and end to end delivery approach. Laing O'Rourke has taken bold and visionary steps to embrace this agenda and I believe this 10 point plan is an important addition to the debate on how we appropriately modernise and safeguard our industry's future."

A DEC curriculum has been developed by the self-styled 'social business', Class of Your Own Ltd. Its founder and managing director, Alison Watson, said: "The UK could be a world leader in built environment education, but for too long, we've delivered student engagement that focuses on quick wins instead of long term impact. Laing O'Rourke was an early supporter of the DEC learning programme, and are now seeing the rewards of their commitment through the young, exciting talent they have helped to develop. I wholly support the company's ten-point plan. The skills are out there in today's digital generation; there's simply a lack of awareness that they can be applied in the construction industry.” 

The report’s ten recommendations:

1.       Flex the Government’s planned Apprenticeship Levy and reduce delays to approval of ‘Trailblazer Apprenticeship’ standards

2.       Create regionally focused skills pipelines

3.       Increase availability of Russell Group standard part-time degree apprenticeships

4.       Review options for career transitioning apprenticeships

5.       Introduce GCSEs and A-levels in Design, Engineer and Construct (DEC) disciplines

6.       Foster collaboration between industry and government to deliver a broader range of improved careers advice for construction and engineering

7.       Commit the industry to measurable improvements in diversity

8.       Seize the opportunity of the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

9.       Support the creation of a single construction and infrastructure skills body

10.   Facilitate the ongoing professional development of a directly employed workforce