The ‘value gap’: Fixing the focus on construction apprenticeships

The skills gap in the built environment sector is a hot topic, with many businesses boosting apprenticeship numbers to tackle the issue. But once through the door, it’s vital to retain these valuable recruits by offering quality experiences, says Daniel Simpkins, recruitment officer at EN:Able Futures CIC, the award-winning flexi-job apprenticeship service. A former apprentice, he says this ‘value gap’ also needs to be addressed.

As a recruitment officer, the task of championing the next generation of built environment specialists is a subject I am passionate about – and one that is important to highlight during National Apprenticeship Week.

All industry sectors have seen a rise in apprenticeships in recent years. Often school leavers, most apprentices rightly see this route as a great vocational choice to earn money while learning new skills and gaining a qualification.

As a former level two and level three business administration apprentice, I understand the experience. Vocational courses may have changed since I was a school leaver but the fundamentals of what makes a valuable apprenticeship remain. This is how I believe the process can be refined:

The apprenticeship challenges 

In a world where employers are increasingly seeking experience in their workforces, it’s understandable they see the value in recruiting and supporting apprentices.

Recent government data shows that apprenticeship starts were up by 7.0% to 130,830 compared to 122,290 reported for the same period in the 2022/23 academic year.

But despite this rise in popularity, there is still a worryingly large skills gap. Figures from September 2023 showed there were 36,086 vacancies due to the skills shortage – an increase of 158%. Furthermore, Construction Skills Network (CSN) report predicts the industry will need 225,000 construction workers by 2027.  

While more people need to be recruited and trained in important construction and housing skills, from bricklaying to quantity surveying, project management and more, the issue of retention is too often overlooked.

There can be many roots to the retention problem: a tricky work-life balance, low wages, and mental health concerns to name a few. However, one issue that needs to be explored is the value gap. 

The value gap explained

What makes a valuable apprentice? Being dedicated, curious, studious, and passionate about the industry and able to work in a dynamic environment would summarise a company’s wish list for the ideal candidate.

But while many apprentices turn up on their first day bright-eyed and ready to learn, they often arrive in an environment that is unprepared to nurture their curiosity. 

Whether there is a lack of learning experiences, undefined goals or confusion over who is overseeing their development, apprentices are often thrown into the deep end and expected to swim with ease.  

That is not to say businesses don’t approach apprenticeships with good intentions – in most cases they welcome desperately-needed young talent. But that enthusiasm doesn’t always translate to a productive and valuable apprenticeship.

Many firms may feel they don’t have the time to make an apprentice a top priority if they are juggling the recruitment, onboarding, training and qualification process alongside the day-to-day business.

But if this is a young person’s first experience of construction as a career, it is crucial that they feel valued, supported and adequately trained as a solid foundation for the future.  

What this means in practice is giving time, patience, and understanding, which leads to a more holistic approach to training and a more roundly developed team member.

The next steps for apprenticeships

The first step is for businesses to be realistic about the time and resources available. The focus needs to be on training and retaining the talent coming through the door.

The world of recruitment can be intimidating. One option could be to externalise part of the apprenticeship process – such as the recruitment and pastoral responsibilities – so the business can focus on training and qualifications. Specialist help to shrink the applicant pool in the first instance and look after long term mentoring is worth considering.  

Businesses should take advantage of the Apprenticeship Levy, introduced in April 2017 for all employers paying an annual wage bill of more than £3m that is then used to fund apprenticeship training.

Many companies aren’t aware of the opportunity to apply for the funding but they can share their levy with other organisations, helping to generate more apprenticeships for SMEs.

Collaborating with a flexi-job apprenticeship provider can remove many barriers and challenges, such as the administration and pastoral burden of hosting the apprentice. The pastoral element is crucial in this discussion and perhaps the element that businesses may lack the expertise in delivering. 

Having a tailored care package, which can include mentoring, goal-setting and 1-1 sessions to allow for feedback, can feel like a lot of hassle. This is why involving an external expert could be the difference between feeling burdened by taking on an apprentice, and feeling the benefit of having an apprentice on your team. The business can purely focus on the training, while the apprentice’s pastoral needs are sufficiently taken care of.

The key is to make training an apprentice as valuable as possible – to both them and the business.  

Lessons learnt 

When looking back on my journey as an apprentice, the most important aspect was being supported by people who understood what I needed.

I was more than a number to fill a capacity or quota; I was treated as a person with my own strengths, weaknesses, and potential. Feeling values is something money can’t buy. 

The testament to my experience is the fact that I’m here recruiting the next wave of talent, hoping they have the same valuable experience I did.