Last year the Construction Industry Training Board published a report showing that the building industry needed to create 76,000 jobs every year for the next five years to meet the demand for skilled labour.
Its Skills Foresight Report 2002-06 also revealed that electricians are one of the most sought-after professions. "We need 7,400 electricians every year to fill in the gaps," says Fiona Kane, the CITB's head of marketing. "There has been a lot of talk about plumbers, but I think they have just done a good bit of PR."
The lack of young people and graduates entering the industry is increasingly a problem according to the Electrical Contractors' Association. "Historically, we have the problem that the building industry is not fashionable," says an ECA spokesman. Potential recruits are steered towards higher education courses in subjects such as media and humanities because vocational studies are seen as second class, leading to under-paid jobs.
Parts of the industry blame the government for devaluing vocational education in secondary schools and trying to get half of all school leavers into higher education. "Students are diverted into those areas whether they're suitable or not," says the ECA, "then they become dissatisfied."
A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows that of the 284,000 UK students that should have graduated last summer, around a quarter (65,000) failed to do so.
However, the government realises that these problems have to be addressed. Charles Clarke, secretary for education and skills, spoke at an ECA dinner in February and announced that the government will spend £10bn on improving vocational skills by 2005-06. Claire Donovan, education and skills policy advisor at the Engineering Employers' Federation says: "The reforms will help break down barriers between vocational and academic learning and improve work experience opportunities. However, young people still need to get better advice and guidance to make the right choices at 14, 16 and 18."
She says it is essential that students in schools are aware that vocational training is not second-class. Teachers and careers advisors need to promote vocational studies as both exciting and demanding to students and parents.
The CITB already employs representatives in schools to do this. "We have 13 offices in the UK with education teams that go to the local schools and talk to the students, organise careers days and make sure teachers have accurate information," says Kane.
The change in the government's stance has yet to take effect but work by the associations is having a positive impact. "We have received 10% more applications in 2002 than we did in 2001," says Kane.
Some employers are also sceptical about apprenticeships, she says. "Companies can train someone for three years and then they move to another company or industry, so they have to start again."
Dave Rogers, chief executive of training firm JTL, says employers in smaller firms foot the bill for most of the industry's training. "Around 80% of all electricians receive initial apprenticeship training in our industry. This happens in all trades and if we are training for other industries we should be funded accordingly."
The industry used to be able to fund apprenticeships but is now demanding money from the government. The EEF says that an apprenticeship costs a firm around £50,000 but it only receives £14,560 funding for 19- to 24-year-olds and nothing for older trainees.
The cost of training an apprentice is also increasing the problem of skills shortages because employers are afraid to take the financial risk. "We had over 13,000 enquire about apprenticeships last year and about 6,000 actually made it through the selection test. If we'd had another thousand or so places, we could have filled them with good quality apprentices."
However, although he believes enlisting apprentices is the main way of tackling the skills shortages, there are other ways of filling the gaps with competent people.
The electrical industry is trying to employ more women and people from ethnic backgrounds. "Our industry has a poor record on equal opportunities; in this day and age it is difficult to maintain such a record indefinitely," says Rogers. He points out that firms are beginning to realise that by omitting women they are ignoring half the population. However, there continues to be a lack of women working in manual jobs. "There is much stereotype thinking," says Marie-Noëlle Barton, national manager for Women Into Science and Engineering. "Girls still believe that vocational careers are low paid and some people in the industry don't think women belong in these jobs."
Barton believes the best way to remove these obstacles is to convince parents, teachers and careers advisors that girls can be successful in manual trades. Clair Williams, an electrical designer at Nottingham firm GT Ranby has worked on site for years. "Male apprentices get reprimanded for making mistakes but I got flak for making mistakes and being a girl. I also had aspersions cast about my sexual preference." However, trained women still find it difficult to find work. JTL believes the way to change this is to appeal to the employers' pocket. Rogers says: "I've worked with employers for a long time and not many of them will do anything for altruistic reasons - there has to be a business case."
JTL considered this at its recent Meeting Skills Shortages With Diversity conference, which it hosted with the ECA and the Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors. "We try to make employers aware of the reasons for employing women," says Rogers. "A lot of electrical contracting business comes from women who live on their own. They are more comfortable with a woman working in the house ." Firms are also realising that there are areas around the country with large ethnic populations who would be more willing to allow a worker familiar with their language and customs into their homes.
The government has already tried introducing measures to increase the number of apprentices from minority groups by encouraging companies to accept trainees that reflect the composition of the local community. "If you live in an area where 10% of the population is from a minority background then the government says 10% of your work-force should be from that group," says Rogers, "but this is simplistic logic and we'd find it difficult to meet those targets in the medium or short term."
Apprenticeships, minority targeting and government funding are increasing but the industry is still expected to fall short of targets set in the Skills Foresight report. All these changes are too little, too late, and it seems that it will be a long time before the electrical industry can successfully bridge the skills gap.
This article was first published in Electrical Times magazine and has been used courtesy of publisher and Voltimum UK partner Highbury Business Communications.
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