Apprentices are victims of the credit crunch

As the crisis deepens, students are dropping out of courses and building firms are taking on fewer apprentices.
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The Independent Online

When Mark Rood began his apprenticeship in electrical installation at Eastleigh College a year ago, he could never have believed that, just 12 months later, he would be a victim of the credit crunch.

During the summer, the electrical firm near Southampton where he worked went into liquidation. Instead of resuming his course this September, 17-year-old Mark found a full-time job with a wholesale company. "I can't carry on at college because I need to find another apprenticeship," he says. "As it was so late in the year, all the apprenticeships were gone."

Last year, Mark attended college for one week each month. He was expecting to continue there part-time for another year before completing his apprenticeship on-site. Now he faces a 12-month wait before picking up the course. "It's really disappointing because I worked really hard for a year," he adds. "It's going to take even longer to get qualified."

Mark's case is a relatively rare one. Since August, Eastleigh has enrolled 1,600 apprentices and other part-time students on construction courses and expects this to double by next summer. "We've not seen any less demand," says Graham Goddard, deputy director for teaching and learning.

Other centres are reporting problems, however. Blackburn College switched two apprentices – a joiner and an electrician – to full-time courses after they were made redundant. Meanwhile, just four apprentices enrolled on a first-year plumbing course instead of the usual 15.

Howard Sharples, deputy head of construction, says that employers will be even less keen to take on apprentices over the winter – meaning that more students will study full-time and gain technical certificates. "They can't do an NVQ because they are not employed in the workplace," he explains.

At Highbury College in Portsmouth, six apprentices have called to say their jobs are at risk and they may not return for a second year. Gas service companies are among the firms most affected, says Dee John, the college's executive director. If alternative employment is impossible, the college will offer them full-time places. But that is not always ideal. "They want to be earning and studying part-time," says John. "We hope that anything we provide is a stop-gap, but the danger is that we will lose them from the sector completely."

The Construction Skills Network says about 42,000 new recruits will be needed annually between 2009 and 2013 – this is less than half the figure it forecasted last year. About 100 people have so far been assisted by a clearing house, set up by the Government with Construction Skills, to help ensure that apprentices can continue their training and find jobs.

Steve Geary, skills strategy director at the sector-run council, says it is often tricky to find enough employers to take apprentices, regardless of the state of the housing market. "Our message to house builders is that they should keep hold of their apprentices for as long as they can." Although full-time courses are an alternative, they do not offer the same breadth of training. "For an apprenticeship to be meaningful, it has to include work-based experience," he adds.

Although the construction industry is in trouble, firms still require skilled workers for large commercial projects. Weymouth College has seen a strong demand from companies involved in developing facilities for Olympic yachting events in 2012.

The number of under-19s on full-time courses at Weymouth is down slightly this year to 150, but adult numbers have risen from 40 to 60 as employers become more selective. "People who were doing a bit of chippying on building sites are finding that work is scarce and employers are starting to ask for qualifications," says John Firth, its head of construction.

Southport College has 70 students taking bricklaying courses, in line with other years. But it acknowledges that the market is changing and, this summer, it encouraged students who were preparing for their second year to find experience with firms that are involved in a range of activities, not just house building.

Through a national diploma in construction, the college offers the opportunity to take on new roles, including management posts. "We can't just say there is a credit crunch and nobody wants bricklayers," says Christine Bampton, Southport's head of construction. "We must ensure that students have progression routes and find the jobs that are out there."