National Apprenticeship Week blog series: UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton, addresses Philip Hammond (Chancellor of the Exchequer)

Posted on: 9 March, 2018

Dear Philip Hammond

As part of National Apprenticeship Week, it’s only right that we celebrate the successes. Just this week at University College of Estate Management (UCEM), we have enrolled an additional 80 or so Degree Apprentices on to the Chartered Surveyor standard, further adding to the 650 apprentices who we already have on programme. At UCEM, we’re confident that we are at the forefront of enabling the academic provision necessary to make a success of the apprenticeship agenda.

Currently, we are only able to support our Built Environment industry employers with just two approved, relevant standards. This seems wholly inadequate, given the acute and long-term shortage of skills identified in the construction and real estate industries as part of our report published earlier this year – and in light of the government’s imperative to build new homes and new infrastructure. Add to this the likely negative impact of Brexit on the skilled and qualified workforce, and you have to argue that output in the Built Environment as a whole is likely to fall considerably short of the stated ambition.

As no doubt you will be aware, just 29 of the 87 standards proposed for the Built Environment sector have been approved for delivery. Perhaps you would agree that this makes a mockery of the claim by Sir Gerry Berragan during his speech at the recent Ofqual Conference that it’s somehow a ‘positive’ sign that there are now 300 apprenticeship standards at some stage in their development. Well, it isn’t. Not if they have been stuck there for three years or more, as many of the construction ones have.

What is equally worrying is the fact that the number of apprenticeship starts has fallen for seven consecutive months compared with the same period in the previous year. Employers are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in obtaining approval for new programmes and the likelihood that they will now be faced with the real prospect of losing some (or all) of their levied funds. Given the imperatives of the Industrial Strategy, this seems perplexing at best and, at worst, disastrous for technical education and the development of the much needed, skilled workforce in the Built Environment.

As such, I welcomed the news this week that you had hosted the first advisory group of the National Retraining Partnership, aimed at driving up adult learning and retraining, looking at how the new scheme can boost productivity and tackle skills shortages in sectors identified as areas of growth, including in construction. I also note that your Cabinet colleague, Mr Hinds, is quoted as saying: “Today’s meeting marks a historic partnership between government, business and unions… for our economy to thrive we need everyone, regardless of their age, to be able to gain the skills they need to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.”

So, perhaps it’s reasonable of me to ask where were the education providers in the discussion?

This appears to be symptomatic of the disconnect between various government policies and departments. Surely, a major part of the answer in driving up the adult learning opportunities for the construction industry would be the approval of the very apprenticeship standards which have been designed by employers? Whilst it may not represent the whole answer, it would be an extremely easy and quick solution to implement, getting us moving in the right direction without the need to invent anything new.

My request to you as Chancellor therefore would be to:

  • Look closely at the great benefits which would come from approving the existing apprenticeship standards for construction and real estate;
  • Enable a fully functioning apprenticeship model as a key part of developing the skills which the Industrial Strategy so desperately requires;
  • Engage with education providers who are committed to delivering apprenticeships to understand the challenges which are preventing the agenda from being more successful than it currently is.

You have an extremely potent solution in place with the apprenticeship system. With a few refinements and removal of barriers, it could provide the answer to many of the clearly identified priorities and ambitions.