Nurturing the next generation of construction workers

 16 May 2024

The construction sector in England saw a 6% year-on-year drop in apprenticeship starts last year, according to the latest Department for Education data. The figures show that 24,530 people started construction apprenticeships in 2022/23, which was a fall from 26,080 the year before.

Apprenticeships are vital to bridging the skills gap that continues to be a major issue for the construction industry.

Here, Dean Hayward, head of sales and marketing, and Charlie Smith, marketing coordinator at NMBS, discuss the benefits of apprenticeships and why the building products sector should embrace vocational training routes.

The benefits of apprenticeships

Independent merchants are believed by most tradespeople in the UK to provide the best understanding of their business needs and requirements, according to research by On The Tools. But to continue meeting and exceeding these expectations, merchants need to make sure their staff are adequately trained. This can be done by utilising apprenticeships, which is something NMBS is working hard to promote in the industry.

“I started my career as an apprentice at a large electrical firm,” says Dean. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish my apprenticeship as the company I’d been working for went bust, but it showed me the value of being in the real working world and what that can teach the next generation coming into the construction industry.

“College can only teach you so much. Getting real-life experience like dealing with customers with a problem or questions and using business management software allows the next generation of construction workers to become an effective member of the industry as quickly as possible.

“We believe that independent builders’ merchants provide a great opportunity for the sector, which is why NMBS has chosen to lead the way by not only encouraging apprentices to join our own business but also promoting opportunities with our members.”

Challenging stereotypes

One of the barriers to getting people into the industry is the historically negative perception of construction and a lack of understanding about the different roles on offer.

Charlie joined NMBS back in 2022 as a marketing apprentice. When reflecting on her own apprenticeship journey, this is something that she highlighted.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hesitant about joining the construction industry, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” says Charlie. “My apprenticeship has taught me that our industry is so much more than bricks and blocks. I have learned from so many more people than just the NMBS marketing team and was supported by the whole team at NMBS. Working with our suppliers and members has given me an insight into the industry that has been invaluable.

“I chose an apprenticeship because it gave me industry experience and a qualification at the same time. Apprenticeships also offer the opportunity to figure out what you’re looking for and what suits you. It allowed me to find the topics that I enjoyed the most and follow my passions.”

Leading the way on apprenticeships

NMBS is working with construction apprenticeships specialist LEAP in conjunction with the Builders Merchant Federation (BMF) to train scores of builders’ merchant apprentices each year to plug the skills gap in the construction industry. The apprenticeships cover a wide range of career options, ranging from entry Level 2 qualifications, such as warehouse operator, to more advanced Level 7 qualifications suitable for upskilling existing staff or onboarding new individuals with experience and transferable skills into senior positions.

“We are delighted that a growing number of our members are taking part in our apprenticeship recruitment drive, which will improve service delivery to their local markets and also help to plug the skills shortage in the construction industry,” says Dean.

“We’re still calling on the builders’ merchant sector to raise awareness of the varied and exciting roles available through the apprenticeships programme, which can lead to long and fulfilling careers as well as help address the skills shortages we face.

“Together with the support of the BMF, we want to grow the apprenticeship offering to help narrow the skills gap in the construction industry.”

Driving industry progress

The construction industry still has a way to go to encourage female apprentices to confidently join the industry. Women accounted for less than a fifth of the construction workforce (15.8%) from April to June 2023, according to the Office for National Statistics. This was a 1.2% increase on the previous quarter, but more work is still needed.

“It is no secret that our industry is heavily male-dominated and this can make women hesitant to apply for roles,” says Charlie.

“Promoting the fact that diversity is improving in our sector is key to making further progress. More than half of the apprentices that NMBS has hired over the last two years are women. A more diverse industry will lead to different ideas and ways of working and new approaches to the challenges facing our industry, as well as helping to drive innovation.”

“The independent merchanting industry is perfectly positioned to support people entering the industry,” adds Dean. “Independent merchants have a unique knowledge of local businesses and their project and product requirements. This specific knowledge allows new entrants to quickly become skilled and develop a bespoke understanding. The high level of customer service that independent merchants pride themselves on is another vital skill set that will support people throughout their careers.”

Learn more about apprenticeships and how you can support our industry on the NMBS website

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