The missing million: the future of the trades industry under threat

The UK Trade Skills Index 2023 paints an alarming picture of the construction and trades sector. Right now, 35% of the construction and trades workforce is aged over 50 – of particular concern in an industry which often involves strenuous physical activity, meaning that many workers are unable to continue in the sector until the official retirement age of 67. In addition, the percentage of skilled workers from the EU has fallen by 8.6% since 2019 due to Brexit. And an increase in demand in the sector has resulted in a consequent increase in wages costs. In order to combat the skills loss brought about by these factors, 937,000 new recruits must be found by 2032.

 The need is apparent across all skilled trades, with the largest increases in employment forecast to be for carpenters (23,900), electricians (22,900) and plumbers (19,500). And a survey has revealed that in 82 of the UK’s 100 largest towns and cities, plumbers are the most sought-after tradespeople, closely followed by electricians, landscapers and roofers.

An attractive career for young people?

A recent survey by The Construction Index revealed that many young people still have a negative view of the construction industry, with the main reasons being that they perceived it as dirty and manual (52%), dangerous (37%), sexist (33%) and dull (22%). However, 56% of the respondents found construction an attractive career prospect, suggesting that perceptions of the sector are changing – although only 9% listed a skilled trade, such as plumber, carpenter, bricklayer or electrician, among their top two career choices.

Outmoded perceptions of the trades sector are not the only issue for young people: research conducted by London-based charity The Ubele Initiative, with funding from the Youth Futures Foundation, showed that poor careers information and a lack of gender and ethnic diversity also deterred young people from entering the sector. Manual trades remain heavily male-dominated – in 2021/2022, 92% of construction apprenticeship starts were male – and can appear unwelcoming and unattractive to young women. Racial discrimination in the building trade was cited as a barrier by some young people, and parental views within particular communities were also a contributory factor.

Career prospects in the trades sector: are apprenticeships the answer?

Ensuring that young people understand the opportunities and prospects offered by a career in the trades is vital. In 2022, most skilled occupations had above average wages, the occupation with the highest median annual earnings being scaffolders, at £38,100. The prospect of self-employment and ‘being your own boss’, which accounts for a high percentage of workers in the trades industry, is also attractive to many young people.

One of the traditional routes into the trades sector is through an apprenticeship. Whereas fifty years ago about one third of school-leavers entered apprenticeships, today fewer than 1 in 20 young people between the ages of 16 and 18 are apprentices, while more than half of all apprentices are over the age of 25. This decline is significant, as apprenticeships can help young people into good jobs: research shows that starting an apprenticeship at Level 2 or 3 is associated with higher average returns than undertaking a classroom-based vocational qualification at the same level. Routes into apprenticeship in the UK are currently more limited and less well-funded than in many European countries.

To help young people find apprenticeships, About Apprenticeships, in conjunction with online trade directory Checkatrade, has launched the Get In programme. Young people aged 16 to 25 can upload their CV to a jobs board, where employers looking for apprentices can find potential candidates. As apprentices earn a wage, receive holiday pay and time off for training and study, as well as earning a qualification that is equivalent to a GCSE (level 2) or A level (level 3), apprenticeships are an attractive proposition for young people looking to enter a skilled trade.

Incentives for young people: training, awards and competitions

Organisations and individual companies within the trades sector have also set up initiatives to encourage young people into skilled trades. World Skills UK, an independent charity that’s a partnership between employers, education and governments, provides a Learning Lab with free tools and resources for both educators and learners, as well as a Centre of Excellence to embed international best practice into apprenticeships and technical institutions. It also runs several national competitions and represents the UK at the annual EuroSkills competition.

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) runs SkillBuild, the UK’s largest multi-trade skills competition for construction trainees and apprentices. And the Painting and Decorating Association’s Apprentice of the Year competition has grown over the last decade from a single-day event to one that encompasses three regional heats. In 2023 the competition will also include a regional competition event for Scotland, as well as a Grand Final stage.

As an alternative to the sometimes uninspiring careers fairs in schools, Checkatrade is targeting pupils in years 10 and 11 with an upcoming scheme called ‘Try a Trade’. Its aim is for young people to learn about careers in the trades through experiential learning sessions, hands-on activities, and first-hand access to people already working in a trade.

A positive outlook for the future

While recruiting the missing million is a daunting task, it’s clear that efforts are being made to transform the skilled trades sector into an attractive career choice for young people. Although there is still much work to be done, it’s encouraging that the number of female apprentices in construction has risen at an average annual growth rate of 25.1% between 2016 and 2022, indicating that more young women are considering a career in trades – and contributing to filling the skills gap. Breaking down barriers to access in the trades industry, as well as emphasising the earning power and potential of a career in the skilled trades, are important first steps to attract, and retain, young talent.