The lack of tradesmen, apprenticeships and Brexit

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There is an acute shortage of building industry tradesmen in the UK and the problem is not a result of the current building boom. The problem has been growing for many years and the dearth of apprenticeships has been a major factor.

In the not-too-distant past, an apprenticeship in a recognised trade in the construction industry was the way forward for many who were leaving school with few, in any, formal qualifications.

It didn’t matter whether the trade was bricklaying, carpentry, plumbing or whatever. Learning on the job with day release to a local college for four years meant you would be recognised as a qualified tradesman.

Unfortunately, for the construction industry and many other industries, successive governments have pushed further education and tertiary courses in preference to apprenticeships. They have allowed the training of tradesmen to be shortened and the image and prestige of having an apprenticeship to be downgraded.

For example, London Transport, a quasi-government operation, is having difficulty recruiting bus drivers so it is advertising 1000 ‘apprenticeships’ in ‘bus driving’ rather than ‘traineeships’. It is not difficult to see why the appeal and standing of apprenticeships have been diminished in recent years.

The government will argue that the old system was almost indentured labour, and a revamp was necessary. It is generally agreed that flaws existed, and school leavers of today are more inclined to seek an office or retail job rather than manual work. However, there is almost universal agreement within multiple industries that the apprenticeship system needs to be revamped. Unfortunately, the efforts to date have been derisory.

The government needs to take steps to entice people, particularly school leavers, into building trade apprenticeships and encourage small- to medium-sized companies to offer them. It also needs to formalise what qualifies as an apprenticeship. We doubt either will happen anytime soon.

As for Brexit, prior to the vote, the building industry filled the need for tradesmen by importing them from the EU, particularly eastern Europe. The uncertainty over their future in the UK has seen many tradesmen leave and the lack of ongoing recruitment due to visa issues etc. and red tape has resulted in diminishing numbers and as expected, rising costs.

This is being felt in multiple sectors and whilst the government wants to be seen to be restricting immigration, the reality is that we need a larger workforce than we currently have. We either have to accept the ongoing labour shortage or ease immigration restrictions.

If the UK is to solve its housing crisis it needs to build more homes. To do that it needs more tradesmen. Some will argue that the situation will improve over time as the shortage of capable labour will drive up wages which will attract more labour and so forth. This may work in the long term, but it is of little benefit to the building industry in the short to medium term. It also won’t help those who need to find a home now.

It may not be fair to blame all the building industry’s problems on the government. However, it is fair to expect it to introduce measures to eradicate the problem. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to do so in the near future.

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