Apprenticeships can keep the lights on and cut youth unemployment

12 April 2016


There is a shocking lack of skills in the utilities sector. That isn’t sensationalism - it’s a very real problem caused by an ageing workforce nearing retirement and not enough people entering the industry to replace them.

A month ago we celebrated National Apprenticeship Week, but it served as a stark reminder that the industries facilitating our very way of life are suffering from this potentially devastating skills shortage. As a result, the major players that install and maintain the country's critical infrastructure, from water mains to gas pipes, are competing with each other for a dwindling number of potential recruits. Such an eye-watering dearth of talent drives the market up and costs are ultimately passed on to the consumer, hitting us in our pockets.

Vocational training not fashionable

The issue has been compounded in the last few decades with vocational training and apprenticeships going out of fashion, as students have been largely pushed towards an academic route via universities. In turn, the attractiveness of skilled apprenticeships to the most able candidates has declined, an effect exacerbated over the last 20 years and evidenced by employment statistics highlighting the ageing workforce.

But we’re starting to see something of a renaissance.

With the spiraling cost of university education in the UK, more and more apprenticeships are being offered as a viable alternative. They’re a great opportunity for industry to promote a different career path, offering the chance for young people to earn as they learn, getting real experience on real projects to aid their development. And who doesn’t like the sound of a degree without the debt?

Trailblazer apprenticeships can shape the future

The introduction of the new Trailblazer Apprenticeship model is great news. A direct response for calls for workplace training to be made more relevant, Trailblazers are tailored closely to the requirements of the business giving company leaders confidence that they will retain the skills they’ve invested in once studies have been completed.

While Trailblazer Apprenticeships are unlikely to deliver the numbers we so desperately need on their own, they have the potential to make an enormous difference and get the sector thinking in the right way about the future.

Industry Skills Forum making a difference

Having great apprenticeships and employment opportunities are one thing. Industry, government and education need to collaborate much more efficiently in order to change somewhat negative perceptions of working in the sector. I recently participated in the inaugural meeting of the newly-formed Industry Skills Forum, and one of the recurring topics seen as a major challenge for businesses within the sector is how to make careers in this space attractive. This isn’t easy when you see stories in the news about ‘fatbergs’ and the like in our sewers, but something we, as a Forum, will be seeking to address as we look to make a positive dent in the numbers required to bridge the skills gap.

If we get it right, I believe apprenticeships can go a long way to solving the problem of the skills crisis across the utilities, construction and energy sectors. The jobs are there, and since we’ll always need lights that work and taps that run, so is the security – so why shouldn’t apprenticeships play their part and help reduce youth unemployment in the process?

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