Retraining existing workers could solve skills crisis

Thursday, November 19, 2015 4:40 PM


Demand for new operatives in all sectors of the building engineering services industry will rise over the next four years, leading to major skills shortages, according to research from the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES). However, B&ES believes that many workers, who came into the sector during the recession, have missed out on formal training and could now be offered apprenticeships or the opportunity to upskill.

The B&ES research also suggests an imbalance in the sector’s training provision, with the number of plumbing apprenticeships far exceeding the sector’s needs. This suggests industrial and commercial building services employers may be having to compromise by using plumbing, rather than specific H&V, training.   

During the Association’s recent ‘Meeting the Industry’s Skills Challenge’ conference, Dr Mike Hammond, who carried out the research on behalf of B&ES, predicted a massive “under-supply in every other sector [apart from plumbing] between now and 2018” particularly in the heating and ventilating professions. Ductwork is already “in crisis”, although shortages will be less severe in air conditioning and refrigeration, he said.

He told the conference, which took place at the Wellcome Collection in London, that skills shortages were also being exacerbated by the number of operatives reaching retirement age. His research revealed that over 500 trained building services professionals were due to retire this year; with only 65 new apprentices aged 16 entering the sector.


“The number of apprentices has been declining at a rapid rate since 2008,” said Dr Hammond, who added that the level of retirees was creating a “real headache” by reducing the number of people in the industry with management level skills.

Using data from the Engineering Services SKILLcard system, which has been used to register operative training since 2001, he traced a general “de-skilling” across the sector in recent years with employers often only training up to Level 2. This does create an opportunity, however, to ‘upskill’ many young operatives holding the basic green card to higher and management levels, the conference heard.

 “The market has gone doolally,” said Dr Hammond.  “There are too many people in some areas and not nearly enough in others, but if you accept the premise that you can retrain plumbers to do other things; then there is a solution.”

Former SummitSkills chief executive Keith Marshall OBE said the problem was partly down the “appalling” quality of careers advice in schools: “It is easy for a school leaver to understand what a plumber is, but they haven’t got a clue what a ductworker is.

“If you are a plumber and not getting a lot of work, why not retrain into this sector? Our task is to provide a mechanism to make that possible.”

However, B&ES President Jim Marner said some of the low numbers could be down to new ways of working. “It is not necessarily just about de-skilling, but about new skills,” he said. “New approaches to commissioning and the use of off-site fabrication are creating a demand for a different type of operative.”

He also warned employers against taking the short-term option of cherry picking the best staff from competitors in order to resource projects. “It is clear that companies are casting around desperately looking for skilled staff and it is not uncommon for whole project management teams to be head-hunted from one contractor to another, but that doesn’t solve the underlying problem.”

Conference chairman Lord Martin O’Neill of Clackmannan said these figures had “frightened the living daylights out of us, but also given us some hope”. He said politicians tended to take a “simplistic view” of labour shortages and would be tempted to look for quick solutions like shortening training periods, but the B&ES research showed this was a complex problem and that the education system was not addressing it properly.

The government has promised to create three million new ‘Trailblazer’ apprenticeships between now and 2020 to try and plug some of these skills gaps, which will be partly funded by a new mandatory training levy on employers. Mr Marshall said the levy would only be paid by ‘large’ employers, although the definition of ‘large’ had not yet been revealed. For every £1 of employer funding, the government will add £2.


At the last count, 189 apprentice types had been put forward and over 150 were now in development in a bid to meet the September 2017 deadline when government funding is due to begin.

Some of the proposed apprenticeships “needed challenging” as they were clearly inappropriate, according to Mr Marshall. “Ministers said [this new approach] would simplify the process and reduce the number of apprenticeship types, but it is actually leading to more.” He called for the emphasis to be placed on vital sectors, like engineering, that have a pressing need for more skilled people.

This includes the five new apprenticeships proposed for the building engineering services sector including industrial and commercial pipefitting and ductwork at level 2 (installer) and level 3 (craftsperson); along with service and maintenance at level 3.

“B&ES members have helped to bring apprenticeships up to date by modernising the assessment processes and making them appropriate for the required professions,” said B&ES skills and training officer Lindsay Gillespie.

There are also higher and degree level apprenticeships in development for the sector in response to shortages identified by business leaders like the CBI. Earlier this year its research showed that 73% of contractors find it difficult to recruit staff with the high level skills they need to keep up with growing demand for modern, sophisticated buildings.

The CBI was also concerned the government’s approach to apprenticeships would not deliver high quality, business-relevant training.

Professor Tony Thomas of London South Bank University told the B&ES conference there had been “a mismatch between student standards and the requirements of many contractor employers”. This was largely down to the traditional way of recruiting full-time students, many of whom do not have specific practical skills.

He said there was a lack of “workplace competencies” and a bias towards design/professional office-based work. He said the new higher level apprenticeships being developed would “help our sector play its part in driving a higher skilled economy”. These are being shaped around membership of professional institutions and can lead on to degree education at Level 6.

Professor Thomas explained that new apprenticeships would be defined by “occupations not qualifications”; that they would be led by employers and linked to CIBSE professional membership grades to make sure they are appropriate for the industry’s current needs.

The government estimates that someone who trains up to a Level 4 qualification can earn an extra £150,000 over their working life, but Professor Thomas said this was a “conservative figure”.


He added that employers now had a great opportunity to re-shape their future workforces because full-time education for 14-19 year olds was changing with the rise of University Technical Colleges; studio schools; and independent academies. Further Education colleges have also started taking on children from the age of 14 creating a great opportunity to guide them towards more practical professions.

Peta Fee, CEO of training agency Impact Apprenticeships, said just 12% of businesses currently employed an apprentice, but agencies were designed to remove many of the obstacles, such as fears about cost and Red Tape.

“72% of businesses report improved productivity as a result of employing an apprentice and 96% report benefits as a result of taking on apprentices,” she added.

Tony Howard, acting chief executive of the apprentice managing agency Building Engineering Services Training (BEST), said the proposed training levy could be a “major game changer” as it means there will be “cash in the bag” to support apprentice training.

He said BEST has looked ahead to 2019 to help forecast annual growth in employers’ needs and to ensure Trailblazer apprenticeships “fit the model needed by employers”. He also said there were new ways of delivering the training, which are more suited to employers’ working patterns e.g. sending apprentices on block release during quiet work periods.

Mr Howard also forecast a greater role for manufacturers in ‘topping up’ apprentice training in specific technologies to reduce the cost burden on colleges.

Lord O’Neill closed the conference by saying there were clearly “challenges and problems”, but there was also “no need to despair” because progress was being made towards a training model more suited to what employers actually needed rather than what education providers wanted to deliver.

“We clearly have new ways of training and recruitment that are better than what we have had to put up with in the past,” he said. “There are also exciting opportunities - not just for newcomers, but also for people already in the industry whose skills can be updated.”

He said these new approaches would make the industry “more resilient and robust” and capable of meeting rising demand for its services in line with the growing economy.


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