Sustaining the success of construction for the future workforce

SJCC Apprentice of the Year Award winners for 2019, left to right, back row: Callum Meadows, Toby Fi

SJCC Apprentice of the Year Award winners for 2019, left to right, back row: Callum Meadows, Toby Finbow and Che Preston; front row: Jordan Thurwell, Stephen Snook and Scott Bullen Picture: Paul Nixon Photography - Credit: Archant

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating many issues and challenges for the local construction industry. Sue Wilcock looks at its impact on skills and apprenticeships.

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page - Credit: Archant

Due to an ageing workforce and a poor pipeline of young people wanting to take up a career in the sector, construction was already facing a skills crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic. So, is the crisis helping or hindering the efforts being made to attract new blood into the industry?

James Potter is MD of structural engineering design business Superstructures, and has been an enterprise adviser working with One Sixth Form College (One) in Ipswich since 2018.

He explained: “The pandemic shouldn’t act as a deterrent to bringing trainees into construction; in fact, it should be seen as an opportunity.

“We want to keep the momentum going as our work with One is starting to reap rewards. We had taken on one sixth former last September and have just offered another a degree apprenticeship place starting later this year.

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“Through ongoing career initiatives, the pandemic has presented unexpected new opportunities to reach young people further afield, by carrying out virtual work experience and talks.

“This is proving to be more productive, as rather than taking a half day out, I can just log on and deliver a 45-minute session via my laptop. Also, as participants are not in the classroom environment, they are more attentive and willing to engage and ask questions.”

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However, how are construction businesses managing to maintain their training and apprenticeship programmes while adhering to the new rules around social distancing?

Barnes Construction has been nurturing homegrown talent for over 40 years through its management trainee programme. In fact, three of its directors came through this route.

Bob Steward is joint MD and is philosophical about the situation. “Each year we take on new management trainees who have applied to us from schools in the county,” he said. “Although the current situation shouldn’t stop you recruiting – we definitely still have the desire and the need – the reality is that the practical side of training, especially within the site environment, is severely affected. Most of our work is done through mentoring and shadowing, and how can you do that while keeping two metres distance.

“We are rewriting our training manuals and procedures to encompass the new rules. But the pandemic impacts our recruitment process, as it’s challenging to interview and take on new recruits when we are juggling the needs of existing trainees.”

Another hurdle to overcome is maintaining the training and learning when apprentices and trainees are working from home, or they are furloughed.

Mr Potter explained: “We encouraged our team to use this time to develop themselves professionally. For all furloughed staff, we allow them access to company resources, such as software and our technical library, and our team leaders are still available to help with advice and guidance.”

Phil Branton is a director at Wincer Kievenaar Architects. He agrees and shares Mr Potter’s approach. “From the outset, we urged furloughed staff to undertake online training,” he said. “Although they’re not gaining practical experience, they can use their time productively and the senior team are still mentoring, albeit via video calls.

“We have always had a training programme and worked hard to grow our own talent pool. We feel that, even though we are experiencing uncertain times, if you can, you need to keep recruiting.

“Pre pandemic, the government was already doing some great things; one was supporting apprenticeship degree funding which has really helped us as a small business.

“There are several routes into an architectural practice and we have always supported college courses for architectural technologists and provided work placements. However, it takes seven years to qualify as an architect and it’s a costly exercise if you’re studying full-time.

“So, another good thing is that we can take advantage of the new part-time architectural apprenticeship degree courses offered by universities; our trainees can get paid on-the-job experience while completing their qualifications.

“Currently, we have two team members taking this route: one studying at London South Bank and the other at ARU in Chelmsford. And in spite of the current situation, we have a new apprentice starting in September.”

The last word, however, goes to the Suffolk Joint Construction Committee. Simon Girling sits on the committee representing the National Federation of Builders and commented: “If construction is to emerge in a sustainable form after the pandemic, it is vital that we all work together, to promote the importance of retaining employment levels, as well as the continuation of apprenticeships and training schemes which will futureproof the sector regionally.”

Recognising Suffolk’s construction excellence

As well as providing one voice and joined up thinking, the Suffolk Joint Construction Committee (SJCC) offers a platform to demonstrate what a buoyant construction sector we have on our doorstep.

Although the SJCC plays an invaluable role in bringing together the county’s experts, it has become best known for its annual awards which celebrate construction talent in Suffolk. Not only are awards presented from RIBA Suffolk to projects showing the best design and craftsmanship, but the SJCC also recognises the apprentices and rising stars in the local industry.

Darren Webb, chair of the SJCC, commented: “From a very early age, most know that to build houses you need a bricklayer, carpenter etc, but they’re probably unaware of all the other professions that make up this vibrant and exciting sector.

“Undoubtedly, these awards highlight the fantastic people that work in construction locally and help us attract new talent. However, we need to build on this and encourage schools to promote our industry further.

“The different avenues and opportunities are endless and there is a job for everyone in this sector. So, my advice to young people is don’t let the pandemic put you off, as the opportunities are still there – just go for it!”

This story is in association with Barnes Construction, Wincer Kievenaar, Superstructures and Suffolk Joint Construction Committee.

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