It’s no secret that apprenticeships have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with young people in particular bearing the brunt of the mammoth economic fallout. The current statistics don’t make for comfortable viewing as countless apprentices now find themselves back at square one, waiting for the storm to pass before once again taking those first steps on what they hope will eventually be a stable and rewarding career path.
Despite the unfavourable employment conditions brought about by the pandemic, we can’t ignore that fact that our industry was already in a difficult position, hamstrung by a lack of training opportunities and struggling to attract the talented young people needed to form the basis of the next generation of ductwork operatives. Events beyond our control have now exacerbated the issue and unless we work together as an industry, we risk a skills shortage way beyond anything that has come before.
Even though successive governments have amplified the rhetoric surrounding apprenticeships, the UK continues to prioritise the university route for school leavers, with few schools and educational facilities offering up advice and guidance on perusing a career in the built environment. If these educational establishments continue to pay little more than lip service to the apprenticeship route, competing with universities that are desperate to hit recruitment targets for courses will become increasingly difficult and the ductwork sector will be left with an ever-widening skills gap.
Attracting young people is key to securing the future of the industry and without sufficient interest, training providers can’t justify support for courses and employers have no incentive to commit resources to apprenticeship places.
In an ideal world we would have a network of colleges spread throughout the country offering ductwork training for apprentices. As things stand, we only have a handful of course providers in the south, making it extremely difficult for apprentices in other parts of the country to travel long distances in order to attend on day release. Though it’s disappointing to see so few colleges making this vital training available, courses are understandably chosen based on the level of demand and if the demand simply isn’t there then there is little business sense in continuing to offer them.
The ductwork industry as a whole has a duty to act and encourage businesses to reassess the viability of an apprenticeship programme. We must also work together with other companies, organisations, government and the UK education system to promote stronger links between schools and local businesses. Those operating in the ductwork sector need to understand that doing nothing and relying on others is no longer an option – we have to work together to better promote careers in the ductwork industry and back up words with actions.
Our industry remains reflective of the wider construction industry in that there simply aren’t enough skilled workers to go around.
We are not alone in our fight to plug the skills gap but this means we are often competing with larger, better supported building services sectors such as the electrical sector. A significant proportion of new workers joining the industry do so because they have links through friends and family but there are countless school leavers being lost to other more well know professions because they have no knowledge of the ductwork industry and the opportunities it can provide.
Although the ductwork industry has always been viewed as a specialist sector, there are numerous examples of past apprentices going on to achieve great things, with some of the leading ductwork suppliers and installers led by former apprentices who steadily worked their way to the top of the tree.
ADCAS has been banging the drum on apprenticeships for many years, setting up the first college based NVQ L3 course in ductwork and, more recently, establishing a training committee to explore training opportunities – but, as we have discussed, there is still a great deal of work to be done.
As we continue to count the cost of the pandemic, we will no doubt face challenging times in the months ahead. However, as the rebuilding process gathers pace, it is crucial to the future of the ductwork sector that we also look to build momentum around training and apprenticeships.
Countless young people, as well as those adult workers considering an occupational change, will now be analysing and reassessing their future career prospects and we must do all that we can to provide them with the opportunities to progress in our industry.