Election 24: Industry leaders slam Tory apprenticeships pledge

The Conservative Party’s election pledge to provide 100,000 new apprenticeships by 2029 has received a cold response.

A leading construction academic dismissed the £885m plan as “nonsense”, while a senior executive at one contractor described it as “simply smoke and mirrors”.

If it wins the 4 July general election, the Conservative Party said earlier this week that it would scrap the “worst-performing” university degrees to free up money to pay for a new wave of apprenticeships.

But Nicola Hodkinson, director and owner of Seddon Construction, told Construction News the pledge “is simply smoke and mirrors rather than an attempt to make a sustainable change to industries like ours that are facing skills shortages”.

She called on the incoming government to instead provide incentives for employers of all sizes, not just to take on apprentices, but to support them through to completion.

Hodkinson added: “With 350,000 construction companies in the UK, if just 50 per cent hired one apprentice, the skills shortage could be significantly alleviated.

“However, this requires the government to create an environment that fosters apprenticeship success, from providing a work pipeline to offering the right support for employers.”

Stuart Green, a professor in the School of Construction Management and Engineering at the University of Reading, dismissed the Conservatives’ proposal, saying “there is no simple trade-off between university courses and apprenticeships”.

He told CN: “I think it’s complete nonsense. They are entirely unclear on what courses they want to scrap, and there is no reason to think that students denied the opportunity to study their preferred university course would transfer to an apprenticeship.”

If every penny of the £885m was spent on paying for apprenticeships, it would be equivalent to £8,850 per apprentice, but Hodkinson claimed that much of the burden of the cost of apprenticeships would likely fall on employers.

“While the government claims to be investing in 100,000 apprenticeships, the reality is that employers bear the cost of courses, salaries and mentoring,” she said.

Hodkinson added that the plan would not be enough to tackle the industry’s worker shortfall, especially with “a transient workforce that makes it difficult to place apprentices in the right environments to gain the necessary skills”.

According to the Construction Industry Training Board, there were more than 33,000 construction apprenticeship starts in Great Britain in 2021/22.

Green said: “The problem with apprenticeships is employer uptake, and closing university courses doesn’t help.

“Apprenticeships are important, of course, and we need more of them. But we need serious policymaking, not cheap soundbites.”

Long-term economic stability and consistency in policymaking is needed to increase the number of apprenticeship starts and completions, he added.

Green also accused the government of “engaging in a culture war against universities” and seemingly going on “a mission to deliberately alienate young people”.

The Conservative Party has been approached for comment.

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