Dean Towers from BCS Electrics, which has trained over 100 apprentices, looks at how to make electrical apprenticeships more appealing.
The Government recently announced an ambitious plan to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020, but with little focus on the construction industry and continuing misconceptions about this career option how will the electrical sector fare? If we read the latest Government news and general statistics we’re led to believe that the current appetite for apprenticeships is voracious, with young people falling over themselves to get taken on as an apprentice. But what this rosy picture fails to highlight is that the general construction sector – once the stronghold of apprenticeships – is struggling to recruit and keep apprentices, and the effects are causing waves in niche sectors such as electrical contracting and related services.
Although some positivity can be found in the 14.8% increase of the number of people starting apprenticeships during 2014/15, this is quickly dampened when you look at just how many of those carried through to completion – just a little over 9,000, which is over 50% of a potential talent pool falling away. Where are we going wrong? And what can the electrical industry do to turn these ﬁgures around?
A valid choice?
The answer may lie much further back in the educational journey of young people and the deliberate but dangerous move away from non-academic subjects towards staying in education until 18 and then going on to university. Last year, BCS ran a number of school workshops around the local area which revealed an alarming number of misconceptions, and challenges that we as an industry must tackle in order to prevent the skills gap from widening even further.
As an example, many of the young people we spoke to hadn’t been made aware that studying an apprenticeship still counts as staying in education, so they can both work and attend college from the age of 16. Few even realised they could earn whilst they did this, and one in particular wrongly believed that they had to pay to do an apprenticeship. That’s a lot of misinformation being thrown at students who are already faced with many decisions to make. Moreover, when information is given it’s the business, administration and law options that take precedence over promoting trades. There is still an uphill battle to get trades recognised as a valid and acceptable choice for both apprenticeships and subsequent careers.
“The electrical sector has to take more of a stand and step forward to educate and promote apprenticeships as a valid and positive option, not the last resort for those for whom university isn’t an option.”
Take a stand
This battle may be easier to win if more electrical companies made an appearance at educational career days. BCS has attended many of these over the years and is often the only electrical business and the only construction related company present. The electrical sector has to take more of a stand and step forward to educate and promote apprenticeships as a valid and positive option, not the last resort for those for whom university isn’t an option.
Anyone who has studied as an apprentice will know that completing one takes hard work and commitment. If we go back to the ﬁgures mentioned earlier in this article, the large drop oﬀ may be due, in part, to the lack of discussion around the reality of an apprenticeship. Many new starts come in unaware of the hard work they need to put in throughout their four years and when the work begins it can be a real shock. Without support from multiple sources (i.e. industry, providers and even family/friends) many new apprentices will become disillusioned and drop out, unable to visualise the return for their hard work.
Lack of cohesion
The discord between the electrical industry, apprenticeship providers and government is contributing to this, each is working to their own agenda; the industry to close the skills gap, the providers to ﬁll quotas, and government ticking election pledge boxes. With such disparate motives and lack of cohesive action at the top end of the apprenticeship chain, it’s easy to understand why it breaks down at the bottom and we lose talented young people from our industry.
Furthermore, as a model, apprenticeship schemes are fairly inﬂexible, which can make it harder for businesses to look at this as an option because of affordability constraints. This won’t be helped by the introduction of a new Apprenticeship Levy from April 2017 which will see businesses with a turnover of £3m and up pay 0.5% to help fund the three million new apprenticeships the Government is hoping to create.
We must reignite the passion for the apprenticeships that helped so many established electricians get to where they are today by stepping up and making sure our voices are heard much earlier in the educational journey, and taking control of the information that is pushed out to those interested in alternative routes to employment. The sooner we engage with young people the more effectively we can work to ﬁll the skills shortage that threatens our sector.