A UK construction employers body has warned that the industry will "grind to a halt" amid a collapse in the number of people becoming apprentices, a fall it blames on a controversial policy to boost those very numbers.
According to statistics from the Department of Education, there were 375,800 apprenticeship starts in 2017/18, compared with 494,900 in 2016/17 and 509,400 in 2015/16, a decrease of 24% and 26% per cent respectively.
The fall follows the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017, a tax paid by companies with a payroll higher than £3m a year, which can be claimed back to pay for apprenticeships.
A number of large construction firms objected to the new levy because they already pay a training levy to the country’s Construction Industry Training Board.
The Federation of Master Builders (FMB), the UK trade body for small and medium-sized construction firms, has claimed that the fall in recruitment is due to the inflexible nature of the new levy.
Brian Berry, the chief executive of the FMB, said in a press statement: "From April 2019, large firms will be allowed to pass 25% of levy vouchers down through the supply chain to smaller firms, but the FMB is calling for this to be increased to 100%.
"This is an important change because in construction, it’s the smaller firms that train more than two-thirds of all apprentices. If the government is serious about creating 3 million quality apprenticeships by 2020, it must ensure the Apprenticeship Levy works for the construction industry."
Concern over the tightening labour market in the UK construction industry has been increased by the general uncertainty over the fate of Brexit, and a recent report from the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which recommended that the supply of low-skilled migrant workers be limited.
Berry said the MAC’s recommendations, which have been accepted by the government, would lead to a shortage of bricklayers, carpenters and general site labourers, who are classed as low-skilled.
He said: "New figures show that there were 2.3 million EU nationals working in the UK from July to September 2018, 132,000 fewer than one year earlier – that’s the steepest fall on record.
"We need to be training more UK-born apprentices to reduce future reliance on migrant workers from Europe or else the construction sector will grind to a halt. We need tens of thousands more apprentices and tens of thousands of migrant construction workers – of all skill levels."Â
Image: Construction workers grab lunch in London, March 2017 (Elena Rostunova/Dreamstime)