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Wednesday, 12 December

Apprenticeships, Staffing, Training - We Can't Go On As We Are

Mike Turner Looking At Apprenticeships
Trainee Surveyors
Trainee Locksmith
Trainee painter with foreman
Trainee Painter

Mike Turner asks has FM embraced apprenticeships or just got effective at paying lip service to this vital element of our workforce?


With National Apprenticeship Week 2018 in full flow (or having flowed March 5-9), Mike Turner of property services company, Ian Williams, challenges whether the industry has truly embraced the role of apprentices or just got highly effective at paying lip service to this vital element of our workforce?

A sustainable commitment to training and development lies at the heart of every healthy economy and many in the construction and property services sector think we perform well on this front. But the fact is, we don’t. This harsh reality was highlighted in The Farmer Report which made uncomfortable reading for many, as it focused on the shortcomings in our sector’s ‘ailing’ labour model, with the long term prognosis that we can’t go on as we are.


A Ticking Time Bomb

Let’s look at the numbers. Farmer predicts that the size of the construction labour force will decline by 20-25% in the next decade. This represents the culmination of a record low level of new entrants, combined with the need to replace 700,000 retiring workers over the next five years. Add to this one of the lowest productivity levels in Europe, the effect of BREXIT and its ensuing downturn in migrant labour - and the very real skills shortages’ bomb starts ticking.


Doing the same old things and expecting different results

The eternal optimists or entrenched deniers would say we’re already addressing the issue with Apprenticeships and again on the surface, those who are burying their heads could argue it’s true. After all, the Apprenticeship Levy is doing a job and Government has committed to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. It all sounds good in principle but again, a look at the actual reality, says otherwise.


Less than 1% of apprenticeships in construction

The number of people starting apprenticeships in Britain has plunged 61% year-on-year since the Government introduced the Levy, which requires any employer processing a pay bill of more than £3 million per year to pay 0.5% of anything above that level into the fund.  As an example, housebuilders contributed £16 million of Apprenticeship Levy in the last period and got grants back of £7 million - so that's £9 million those firms paid in but failed to claim back. Does this suggest a large scale lethargy towards implementing training?

According to official statistics (from the House of Commons Briefing Paper Jan 2018; Apprenticeship Statistics England), there were 491,300 new apprentices in 2016 to 2017, down 18,100 compared with the previous year. Worryingly, just 21,000 of these apprentices entered roles in construction and the built environment. This equates to less than 1% of our construction workforce.

Various reasons underpin this according to Farmer, reasons that I’ve experienced on a daily basis: lack of margin in the supply chain to be able to invest in training; the poor image of construction; the industry’s heavy reliance on sub-contractors.


A survivalist business model

One of the issues – as witnessed in the demise of Carillion - is low contractor margins, which directly result in a lack of available investment in training for new entrants. This in turn leads to a lack of available apprenticeships or ‘on the job’ training schemes for school leavers. This applies equally to the upskilling of existing skilled labour. Value is being removed from the supply chain at all levels, with training often seen as a loss leader in terms of funding relative to costs. Additionally, the wide use of sub-contractors – think Carillion – which initially seemed like a great way to avoid perceived costly training and development, has backfired.


The skills vacuum

The practice of not having directly employed tradespeople on the payroll has led to a skills’ vacuum in organisations. It’s a short term approach with devastating longer term consequences for main contractors, facility management companies and property services providers. They’re starting to realise that outsourcing skills isn’t sustainable. Entire generations of in-house skills are being lost and the core outputs of their businesses – delivering plumbing, plastering, electrics, painting, bricklaying, carpentry – are no longer within their control.


Resources are power

Economies function on the fact that whoever controls the resources, holds the power, so it’s no surprise that the latest Federation of Master Builders’ State of the Trade Survey reported the biggest problems for firms recruiting these tradespeople since records began a decade ago. It’s also no surprise that sub-contractors specialising in these trades are now able to command unsustainable and prohibitively high hourly rates. This means that many contractors and builders are effectively being held hostage with no option to look internally for the required skilled labour. Not only have they lost their staff to subcontracting but they’ve also lost the ability to train new staff in-house. There’s nobody there to ‘train the trainer.’


Unlock the drivers of change

This all sounds very doom and gloom and it is, yet there are chinks of light. In some pockets, we are seeing the industry right-sizing. I refer not only to the failure of giants like Carillion but also to forward thinking clients who are demanding that things change. For example, a lot of the work carried out by Ian Williams has been mutually agreed with clients to contractually be carried out by our own direct employees. Our clients who look after vulnerable people or those who operate in highly sensitive environments like the defence, security and senior living simply can’t have different sub-contractors, often without the relevant training or clearance, turning up on site every day.


Home grown talent – not a ‘nice to have’ but a commercial imperative

I don't mean this to be as sell but I can't illustrate what I mean without referencing what I (or my company) do. We believe in direct delivery. Ian Williams has always recognised that recruitment and development of talent is fundamental to our future success. That’s why we’ve committed to apprentices making up 10% of our operational workforce at any time. We’re currently consistently achieving 11% and have formalised the significant investment we commit to training and development with the creation of the Ian Williams Academy, whose main objective is to ensure that we have a strong talent pool, transfer the skills, expertise and company ethos through the workforce and ensure succession planning. The Academy scheme is considered by the CITB to be a best-in-class approach and won the National Housing Maintenance Forum’s Best Apprentice Scheme 2018.

Perhaps most importantly, our apprenticeships and trainee surveyor programmes are based in the real world and enable individuals to qualify through on-the-job training by more experienced skilled employees.  Because we’ve retained and developed decades of skilled experience within our teams, an experienced foreperson for example can not only pass on handy installation or paint removal tips but he or she can also coach apprentices on the softer side of our delivery. This means that if we’re working in the home of a sight impaired person, moving the furniture back to exactly the right place is not something to do ‘because we say you have to’ but because it’s critical for the person to be able to navigate around their home. This attention to detail, which is arguably more important than the installation of a new window, is often lost when services are delivered by sub-contractors who want to get in, do the job and get out.


Who works in the training department?

I started this piece by asking who works in your training department. I believe that we all do. We all live and breathe the brand every day - from classroom learning to accredited training, informal chats with the team, to on-the-job training. Experienced board directors to the newest apprentice all have something to share to improve our organisation and ultimately our service to clients. Most importantly, we retain this value in-house.

I challenge service providers, clients and the Government to subject themselves to honest appraisal and corrective action that will lead us all in the direction of a healthier, vibrant and attractive industry to be part of, driven by experienced and empowered people who have the right skills for the job, both now and in the future.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Our industry cannot keep on doing the same old things and expecting different results.

Picture: Mike Turner, Executive Director of property services company, Ian Williams and a selection of Ian Williams Apprentices including trainee surveyors


Article written by Mike Turner, Executive Director of property services company, Ian Williams


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