Earlier this year, the government announced an investment of £50 million into colleges, schools and sixth forms delivering T Levels across England from 2022, to improve and expand teaching facilities and help transform the provision of technical education in the UK. Ministers believe it will help lead to levelling up opportunities across the country and plug skills gaps in affected industries, but with the construction sector afflicted by labour shortages now, are they truly going to solve the problem?
What are T Levels?
T Levels are qualifications co-created with over 250 employers including Fujitsu and Amazon. They are equivalent to three A levels and combine classroom study with industry placements, enabling students to gain the skills businesses need allowing them to go straight into the workplace, onto an apprenticeship or further study.
When T Levels were first rolled out last year, they catered for key industry areas including Design, Surveying and Planning for Construction. Digital Production, Design and Development an Education and Childcare.
Under the government’s new plans for T Levels, a further seven qualifications were rolled out in September this year in subjects such as Health, Science and Onsite Construction, with further subjects including Finance, Media and Legal to be introduced over 2022 and 2023.
What is going on in the construction sector?
For most of the past two decades, the industry has drawn on skilled workers from abroad, mainly the EU, to avoid skills shortages. The influx of foreign labour has been necessary because recruiting and training has long been a problem for the industry. Just two of the levy-funded industrial training boards initially established in the 1960s to boost the national skills level had survived by the end of the 1980s, the CITB and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board [ECITB], which covers the workforce in heavy engineering, such as major energy, chemical, and process engineering projects.
With greater responsibility therefore falling upon the shoulders of businesses to pick up the slack and train a skilled workforce, many firms did not find this a cost-effective measure given the expense associated with training and instead sought to poach rather than train the required skills. This resulted in an inefficient workforce lacking in the relevant skills.
However, many workers in today’s construction sector are nearing retirement age, are foreign and considering returning to the EU following the pandemic and Brexit or are instead looking to move into new sectors. Indeed, employment in the construction industry fell from 2.3 million in 2017 to 2.1 million at the end of 2020, representing a four per cent fall in UK-born workers and a 42 per cent fall in staff from the EU, the Office for National Statistics has revealed. To exacerbate the issue, over 500,000 UK-born construction workers are expected to retire in the next 10 to 15 years. All these factors have left the sector in need of a major skills influx.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his keynote address at the Conservative Party Conference as a message to businesses that his government did not want cheaper foreign labour as a solution and instead called upon the sector to invest in workers.
Could T Levels form a solution?
While T Levels are a step in the right direction in terms of quality courses, the rollout has thus far been tentative. The government has opted for a phased approach over 2020 to 2022, with only a small group of providers tasked with delivering T Levels to help test and shape the programme.
T Levels are being rolled out over the next three years. The first three were delivered in September 2020, a further seven in September this year, with six more and then eight more to follow in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
By 2023, the government plans to make all T Levels available and will increase the number of providers delivering them to help sustain momentum and consolidate the place of these qualifications within the mainstream. By 2024, the government says that all T Levels should have enjoyed at least a full year of delivery and they will then move toward national rollout.
In order to help get T Level students into work in the immediate term and gaining the experience they need, the government has incentivised employers with the opportunity to claim a £1,000 cash boost for every T Level student that they host on a high-quality industry placement from May 27, 2021, to July next year.
While all of this may be in the pipeline and investment is going into upgrading current college facilities for T Level delivery, one industry leader believes that the government could go further and build a series of construction colleges which will deliver the construction-related T Levels to upskill the next generation and plug the hole in the industry.
John Cockerton, Managing Director of drylining and façade finishing specialists, Conneely Group, told The Leaders Council: “There are circa 500,000 new births every year in the UK, meaning that there are roughly the same number of new students leaving school at 18 every year.
“The construction sector has a shortage of 1.2 million workers, so assuming we can get 20 per cent of the school leavers to enter the industry - equating to 100,000 people per year - it will still take 12 years to get up to the required numbers just using UK citizens. That will only be achievable if we decide to train them.
“The UK builds academies for everything else. Arts, Music, Computer Science, Sports…but not construction. And neither of those I have named singularly generate £24 billion per annum in revenue. Construction is considered to generate £3 for every £1 made, which is a £72 billion freebie every year from a £24 billion industry. This renders the sector far bigger than Amazon, Google and Facebook in terms of income tax revenue and job creation. So, we should not need to rely on businesses such as ours to generate the correct training, especially when many of those we train come from the EU or other countries and intend to work for a short spell and then return home.”
Presenting his idea for specialist colleges, Cockerton continued: “The CITB is antiquated and never worked, and if we are to deliver on the PM’s wish of not using a broken format, we could do much worse than build construction colleges to help promote levelling up.
“The majority of these colleges could be built in the northeast where opportunities are scarcer, and if we give these colleges the same emphasis as schemes for building hospitals, we could have them delivering T Level courses quickly.”
More than just a sticking plaster
Cockerton also believes that as well as providing the course and the state-of-the-art facilities required to teach them, ministers must work to promote construction as a life skill and change negative perceptions of the industry.
“We need to be doing more than just offering out the opportunity to learn these skills which could end up being no more than a sticking plaster for the problem. We need to be promoting construction as an essential life skill and a hands-on trade which can be learned so it is treated similarly to more academic subjects. We should also be reinforcing the fact that anyone can pursue a career in construction, not just more academic-minded people who become high-level surveyors and engineers. Furthermore, a Quantity Surveyor, Construction Manager, Engineer or Architect can earn £100,000 per annum, it is literally barrister money!
“If the government throws its backing into promoting construction through TV campaigns as much as it does the Armed Forces, we could see some incredible success with this and get that 20 per cent of school leavers into the sector each year. The major difference between our industry and the Armed Forces that trumps the latter is that in construction you aren’t let go at the age of 40. It's a no brainer that our sector should be better promoted.
“No government has ever engaged in an initiative like this since the Second World War. When we’re talking about levelling up and Building Back Better, we could do much worse than pursue this when it could genuinely be worth a trillion pounds to the nation’s economy.”