This happens to be National Apprenticeship Week (6-10 March), but apprenticeships are front and centre in people’s attentions for plenty of other reasons as well.

The government’s recent Housing White Paper referred to apprenticeships as a key element in addressing the construction industry’s skills shortage. The government’s Industrial Strategy, published in Green Paper form at the end of January, included a pillar specifically relating to skills, and this paper, too, places significant emphasis on the use apprenticeships.

Admittedly, for many companies, hiring apprentices is not a matter of choice. The Apprenticeship Levy is now nearly upon us. It is naturally focusing our minds, as 0.5% of companies’ payroll will be paid into the pot, and the only way for companies paying the levy to benefit from it is to use their vouchers for training apprentices they hire.

For many companies, the Apprenticeship Levy is tough, coming on top of the CITB levy – which has a broader scope but nonetheless has some overlaps. Nonetheless, we can keep a positive attitude. Indeed, it is in our best interests to work within the spirit of the Apprenticeship Levy, and focus on what industry and the broader economy need, not just work the system and hire apprentices in order to recoup one’s levy.

How do we do that?

Use higher and degree level apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are not just for introducing workers to the artisan trades, they are also legitimate alternatives to university for developing senior specialists and managers. Admittedly, there have been some challenges in obtaining final government approval to allow some of the proposed Trailblazer higher and degree apprenticeship standards to be put into use. But these approvals are forthcoming, and the standards are well-aligned with real business needs as well as the quality expected by CIOB and other professional institutions.

Use apprenticeships to re-skill the existing workforce. This is a legitimate use for apprenticeships and is in keeping with the continual need to ensure our skills base keeps pace with evolving economic demands. There is enough flexibility in the apprenticeships model to apply it to mid-career re-training or even re-launching new career paths. Perhaps it can be used in conjunction with initiatives such as the BuildForce programme, designed to get ex-service personnel into construction.

Encourage the supply chain to hire apprentices. From 2018, the government will introduce a facility that will allow Apprenticeship Levy payers to pass on some of their vouchers to other companies. In the meantime, there are plenty of good practice examples of contractors actively encouraging their supply chain to hire apprenticeships, and helping with the process. 

Start with the business strategy in mind. Consider what your business success looks like and what KPIs need improving. Then explore what type of apprenticeships can deliver the best return on investment to achieve those needed improvements. Apprenticeships that don’t have a real long-term benefit to the company may end up benefiting nobody.

As I mentioned earlier, in some ways there is not a choice of whether or not to hire apprenticeships. But what is a choice is how we go about it.

Don’t forget that we are in a war for talent. Yes, in some way this is a competitive issue, with many companies competing against each other for the limited skills available. But it is also a collective effort: as a sector, we have to convince more young people to join us. In a post-Brexit world, the next generation of construction workers – whether tradesmen, technicians, or managers – will have to be home grown. 

Apprenticeships are not a silver bullet solution for this, but we would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunities we now have to make apprenticeships a stronger, more integrated part of how we boost our sector skills and more broadly restore national pride in our profession.