Prime Minister calls for ‘national crusade to get homes built’, but, Housing Minister says we don’t have the people to build the houses we need

Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for a ‘national crusade to get homes built’, but, the Housing Minister says we don’t have the people to build the houses we need … What’s the answer?

This week, at the Conservative Party Conference, the Prime minister pledged to launch a ‘home owning revolution’, but earlier in the week, Housing minister Brandon Lewis underlined the need to tackle the skills gap faced by the house building industry … it’s an interesting conundrum.

Graham Hasting-Evans MD at national awarding and apprenticeship assessment organisation, NOCN shares his thoughts on possible solutions.

‘The skills gap’ is often talked about in vague terms, like some sort of mythical creature, – but it really exists and, it’s affecting housing in a big way.

Last month (September 2015) The Treasury published its document “National Infrastructure Plan for Skills”, which identifies major skills gaps in construction.

Figures suggest there is a skills gap, a shortfall, of around 20 per cent covering all types of skills – from project managers to skilled trades.

And it’s a national problem, although it’s probably worst in London, Midlands and the South East.

The reason for the gap is simple; we do not train enough people to keep up with supply.

But the causes are more complex. The industry suffers from large variations in demand, generally associated with varying levels of Government building and infrastructure investment. In the peaks there are skills shortages, in the troughs people leave the sector and in general do not return – and so we create a skills feast or famine ‘seesaw’.

Combine that with the fact much of the work is outside in all weathers and add historic concerns about safety, (although the industry has made major progress on this in the last two decades) it’s easy to see why the industry is not attractive to many entrants.

More must be done to both encourage entrants and a wider range of people into the Construction industry.

There is an added problem that the level of on-going training has traditionally been lower than is needed. Companies hold back because of concerns about investment spend, but such hesitation affects the level and quality of resources available for training in the UK. So despite 50 years of a levy we still do not have a training and apprenticeship system which provides the people needed by the industry.

And, sadly, the Government’s aim to create three million apprentices within the life of this parliament is not helping.

It wants to reform apprenticeships to ensure they are of a high quality and match the needs of industry. This is laudable. But to do this it has:

1. Started a pilot process called ‘Trailblazer Apprenticeships’, to set new industry standards and assessments which will deliver the high quality apprenticeships the economy will need.

2. Stopped changes to the existing ‘old’ SASE apprenticeships until the Trailblazer process is complete – putting a question mark over the existing apprenticeships and making them ‘unattractive’ for entrants. (Nor does it take into account the degree to which existing SASE apprenticeships might actually already meet the needs of industry.)

3. Started a consultation on a fundamental change to the way apprenticeships are funded through the proposed Apprenticeship Levy, to be managed by HMRC.

But all of this creates massive uncertainty and employers are holding back and so despite a commitment to three million apprentices it’s actually doing nothing for the skills shortage in housing and infrastructure construction.

In fact one could argue the uncertainty is making an industry already unattractive even more so.

Trailblazer pilot process has been in action for two years and we still only have around 50 new style apprenticeship ready for delivery. But not one will address the skills shortages being reported by industry for housing such as bricklayers, carpenters, dry liners and plumbers!

The other great idea of the levy will do nothing for the construction industry as they already have one.

All this at a time when immigration is a real alternative to resolving the skills shortages.

I believe the Government needs to urgently remove the stops and blockages on the existing SASE apprenticeship framework until it has real practical alternatives in place.

It needs to replace the trailblazer pilot process. Instead we need to establish a fully functioning sustainable system with employer-led governance, quality assurance and proper resources in place such as training providers, assessors and work based mentors and assessors.

Finally the Government needs to commit to providing targeted funding, incentives and support to SMEs, the unemployed and those who need re-training, through for example the Levy, ASB and LEPs. And it should include support for priority skills gaps where existing measures are not resolving the problem – housing and construction.