There's a skills crisis in construction, with apprentices dropping out in record numbers. Linda Blackburne examines some dodgy academic foundations

Ashocking 82 per cent of construction students are failing to complete their Government-sponsored apprenticeships - the worst failure rate in the history of the industry - and this wastage has been described as "appalling" by the British Association of Construction Heads (BACH).

The situation is being blamed on dogma and inflexibility within the Construction Industry Training Board, but, at a grass-roots level, the criticism is not only aimed at the CITB.

John Carr, 44, a self-employed plumber from Rawdon, Leeds, and his peers believe young people of today lack an essential work ethic. "The young ones don't want the hassle or the muck. They want to get a qualification instantly. We think they expect too much," he says.

The 82 per cent failure rate should be set against a growth of eight per cent in the construction industry in 2002, and a further growth of two to three per cent expected over the next five years. In addition, there is a major shortfall in properly qualified recruits, and acute shortages in London and the South East. The industry's major federations have set targets for a fully qualified workforce by 2010.

Skills levels are already lower in UK construction than in competitor countries. In Germany, for example, 78 per cent of trainees complete their apprenticeships, compared with 37 per cent in the UK for the two-year Foundation Modern Apprenticeship and the three- to four-year advanced MA. In Denmark, 90 per cent of young people complete their programmes.

The Foundation Modern Apprenticeship forms the entry-level training for the construction industry. The 82 per cent failure rate is still increasing.

David Cormican, the president of BACH and a well-respected expert in construction training, says: "Enough is enough - this appalling wastage rate is largely inflicted upon the colleges and apprentices by the CITB-ConstructionSkills [the Sector Skills Council for the construction industry]. We have warned CITB over many years that this would happen.

"CITB insists that apprentices should be assessed in the workplace. Given the nature of the industry, few employers can provide the full range of work experience, so the apprentice cannot be assessed across the full range of work, and therefore cannot achieve the targets.

"It is this inflexible assessment regime, imposed by the CITB, that is creating much of the non-achievement."

BACH members are very frustrated, he says. Much of the assessment could be carried out in work environments in college workshops and in their huge construction project areas. The dogmatic approach by the CITB-ConstructionSkills must be stopped, he adds.

"These apprentices are more than statistics to construction heads and their staff - they are real people, seeking an apprenticeship and success in an exciting and challenging industry, but for the vast majority of apprentices success is only a pipe dream."

Part of the problem is the number of students failing their apprenticeships because their key skills are not up to scratch. Key skills are about literacy, numeracy and IT, and the required levels may be unrealistic for the average construction apprentice.

On the work-based training issue, a spokeswoman from the CITB says: "It is a criterion of the regulatory authorities that the qualifications are, in the main, assessed in the workplace, with simulation only being allowed in areas such as health and safety, very non-routine activities, or where it is deemed too hazardous to assess in the workplace."

But the CITB is concerned about drop-out rates and is looking into the problems associated with work-based assessment. When its managing agency matches employers to candidates, the Foundation Modern Apprenticeship pass rate increases to about 40 per cent. The increase may be due to the support employers are given throughout the matching process.

Both the CITB and BACH, despite the "us and them" barriers of the past, are anxious to stress their willingness to work together as partners. Simulation, however, is a major sticking point.

At Leeds College of Building, the principal, Ian Billyard, and his deputy, Derek Whitehead, would be happy for apprentices to learn how to hang a door, for example, in the college's expansive workshops. If the apprentice's employer never hangs doors in his business and the trainee has completed seven out of eight assessment units, why can't door-hanging be simulated?

At national level, jokes about CITB's rigidity are common. CITB would only agree to simulation if a water sprinkler were held over the apprentice's head, say the jokers. The sprinkler is supposed to simulate real rain. But the CITB has a point: doing a job in college is one thing but doing it on a quivering scaffold is another.

Leeds has been awarded full status as a recognised Centre of Vocational Excellence for construction, yet, even at this college, only 34 per cent of its modern apprentices complete the course. With 1,000 students attending courses every day, it has the resources and technology to do what smaller colleges are unable to do. Instead of sending apprentices to city test centres where nearby branches of HMV and McDonald's are often a distraction, Leeds trainees can sit the test on health and safety whenever they are ready, via the internet on a college computer. The computer test also suits employers. They are often reluctant to send their apprentices long distances for a one-hour test.

"We still need a lot more flexibility," says Whitehead. "We have had problems - for example, with plastering. The apprentice has to skim a ceiling but a lot of companies don't skim ceilings - they do Artex - but because they don't skim, the apprentices can't get an NVQ."

Leeds College would like the CITB to "infer competence". Apprentices have to lay concrete tiles to qualify but in the north slates are more common. Laying slates is much more difficult than laying concrete, says Whitehead, so why not infer competence from a successful test in that?

Andrew Nicholson, the mechanical contracts manager with the Ossett building contractors Harlow and Milner, near Leeds, believes the CITB is behind the times. Plumbers are still expected to lead-dress a chimney when this job is now done by roofers. Too much time is spent on lead dressing and not enough on central heating, he says.

Cormican goes a step further: Why not take a leaf out of Germany's book? There, simulation is allowed, but only if the college has reached a specific national standard. And, in Germany, a builder is not allowed to open a construction site unless he is qualified. However, the German system is considered rigid and expensive.

Carr has seen many apprentices fall by the wayside: "There'll be 20 in a class, then after six weeks that'll drop to 15," he says. "At the end of the first term, it'll be down to 12 and at the end of the second year, it'll be down to 10. By the time they qualify, there'll only be seven or eight left."

Michael O'Hagan, an estimator with Getjar Limited, a specialist in reinforced concrete frames, emphasises the importance of qualifications, and the Construction Skills Certification Scheme, to train all workers in health and safety.

Recently he told BACH members: "We are trying to achieve something extremely important in our industry - a fully qualified, trained, monitored, certified workforce in an industry with approximately 150 occupations. We are talking about an industry with two million workers. Some might say that we could never achieve 100 per cent certification, due to the small one-man band operations or part-time/holiday workers, but I think that we can... in time.

"Some day in the future, when people take on a small builder, hopefully the day of the cowboy builder will be gone."

Meanwhile, the education minister Ivan Lewis will soon be making an announcement about more flexible frameworks for Modern Apprenticeships.