UK construction industry searches its soul over “lost generation”

In 2011 England was shocked out of its August torpor by an eruption of rioting among youths in London and other large cities. For a week the nation stared at television screens as scenes of mass looting, arson and pitched battles with police unfolded. When it was over, five people had died, 16 others had been injured, and approximately $320m (£200m) of property damage had been caused.

The rioting started after the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, in Tottenham, on 4 August. But while racial tensions (Duggan was black) may have sparked the unrest, its wildfire spread quickly assumed the characteristics of a nihilistic lawlessness. The abiding image will be kids ambling out of smashed sportswear outlets with as much brand-name footwear as they could carry – even pausing to bend down and try them on.

Many blamed the UK’s high youth unemployment rate and its failure to keep young people in school, or to guide them into the labour market. According to official stats, at the time of the riots there were more than a million people aged 16 to 24 in England who were not in employment, education or training (policy people call them "NEETs").

Panic flared over these million NEETs and the prospect of permanent conflict and civilisational decay. "The ‘lost generation’ is mustering for war," warned columnist Mary Riddell in The Daily Telegraph. This "deskilled, demotivated, under-educated non-workforce" was far more than just a blot on the national balance sheet, she said. "They are the proof that a section of young Britain – the stabbers, shooters, looters, chancers and their frightened acolytes – has fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation."

In 2013 the number of young people completing construction apprenticeships in England fell to just 7,280, half the figure for 2008/09

The spectre of anarchy caused the British state to respond harshly through the courts. Around 3,100 young people were arrested and more than 1,100 sentences were handed out, with magistrates reportedly directed to "ignore the rulebook". 

There has been no shortage of official soul searching over the UK’s high youth unemployment rate, which, as of August, stood at 17.8% compared to Germany’s 7.6%.

In 2010 the government commissioned the economist Alison Wolf to review vocational education in England. She found that up to a third of the post-16 cohort, around 350,000 young people, were in dead-end courses working to attain a set of "low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour market value". In 2012 the government commissioned an entrepreneur called Doug Richard to look at England’s apprenticeships system.

He proposed a raft of measures to make it simpler and more relevant to employers. And, with the UK going to the polls in May next year, it has become an election issue, with Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promising to cut state benefits to fund three million apprenticeships, and opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband promising to guarantee state-funded jobs for young people, paid for by a tax on bankers’ bonuses.

Now the UK construction industry has roused itself over the issue. It’s a matter of self-preservation. After a prolonged recession orders are back up, and a skills crisis is looming.

Various bodies have forecast growth in UK construction output at more than 4% this year and next. The Construction Industry Training Board predicts that more than 182,000 construction vacancies will be created in the next four years as an ageing workforce marches towards retirement. But the flow of new talent coming into the industry has slowed to a trickle.

In 2013 the number of young people completing construction apprenticeships in England fell to just 7,280, half the figure for 2008/09. According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), enrolment in construction management degree programmes has dropped by more than 40% since 2008. 

As a CIOB-backed, cross-parliamentary inquiry found in February, the problems are many and deep-rooted. In a fragmented industry characterised by long subcontracting chains, the burden of training gets pushed down to small firms – up to 60% of all apprentices in construction are employed by companies with fewer than 10 employees, the ones least able to afford the cost and time of training. 

State funding for apprenticeships drops by half for 19-year-olds, when it is 19-year-olds the industry wants. The funding mechanisms themselves are so complex that many firms don’t bother with them. Meanwhile, the industry’s habitual reliance on foreign skilled workers has given it a convenient alternative to training Britain’s youth. The result is a vocational training system that has failed to gain the trust of employers, that doesn’t inspire young people, and for which nobody is keen to pay.

In November, the CIOB is holding an unprecedented conference to confront the problem.

"The supply of skills and the next generation of talent is the number one issue facing construction", said Bridget Bartlett deputy chief executive at the CIOB. "Make no mistake, construction is in a battle with every other sector fighting over the best and the brightest."

Organisers say the conference will dig into the issues, showcase what success employers and clients are having, and explore how construction can begin attracting young people.

Industry heavyweights are lined up to speak, including Sir John Armitt, former chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, Peter Hansford, the government’s chief construction adviser, and cross-bench peer Lord Richard Best, president of the Local Government Association.

It will feature a "pledge wall", where participants will state publicly the steps they will take to boost recruitment. It will examine how educators and employers can work together to create more and better jobs in construction, and look at how construction investment can be used to generate more training and jobs for young people.

"Inspiring the Future of Construction" takes place on Monday, 24 November at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London. For more information, visit:

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