Builders’ confidence holds steady as rethink urged on abolition of apprentice skills test

construction worker stockConfidence amongst Scottish construction employers has been rated positive for the second consecutive quarter, though the vast majority have called for the skills test element of construction apprenticeships to be retained.

A quarterly survey of the membership of industry trade association the Scottish Building Federation has revealed that confidence held steady at plus 2 during the last three months of 2016, the same level recorded during the previous quarter.

This is the second consecutive quarter during which the overall confidence of the industry has been rated positive after a slump in confidence to minus 19 at the end of June, immediately following the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union.

The latest Scottish Construction Monitor survey also asked a series of questions about craft apprenticeships and proposals now being floated to abolish the skills test craft apprentices in construction are traditionally required to undergo before completing their four year apprenticeship.

Taken during the fourth and final year of their apprenticeship, the skills test is typically overseen by an industry employer and is designed to verify that the apprentice’s practical skills in their chosen craft have achieved a suitable standard that is acceptable to the industry.

It is being suggested that the skills test could be removed from the nine construction craft apprenticeships at SVQ Level 3 with effect from the 1st April next year. These frameworks cover key construction trades such as joinery, carpentry, plastering and roofing.

The skills test underpins the principle that craft apprentices can only complete their apprenticeship after fulfilling an industry determined time-served period in director employment, typically four years. There are concerns that the removal of the skills test could allow an apprentice to become qualified after successful completion of their college module programme, meaning that the time-served element of the apprenticeship could also disappear.

An overwhelming 96 per cent of respondents to the survey agreed that SVQ Level 3 apprenticeships in construction should retain the requirement to complete a skills test. Almost nine in ten also agreed that this category of apprenticeships should continue to have a defined time-served element to them.

Meanwhile, 40 per cent of employers completing the survey said that the removal of the skills test would make them less likely to recruit craft apprentices in the future. Respondents to the survey represented businesses employing more than 7,000 Scottish construction workers, including more than 730 apprentices.

Commenting on the survey results, Scottish Building Federation managing director, Vaughan Hart, said: “Overall, construction employers are continuing to feel cautiously optimistic about the outlook for their businesses over the next 12 months, reflecting a more general feeling of very cautious optimism about the outlook for the Scottish economy in 2017. But I think that sentiment is very finely balanced and there is equally a lot of uncertainty about how the construction sector and the economy as a whole will actually perform next year. For this reason, the industry’s overall confidence rating remains only marginally positive this quarter.”

On the issue of craft apprenticeships, Vaughan Hart said: “This survey is an initial snapshot of industry employers’ views and we will continue to survey our own members and the industry more broadly about what they think should happen to craft apprenticeships in the future. But the results of this survey point to an overwhelming level of support for retaining the skills test as a core plank of SVQ Level 3 craft apprenticeship frameworks – and a vital quality assurance tool. We believe that the skills test is the only proven and practical means of ensuring apprentices have reached the necessary competency within their chosen craft, proving they have the on-the-job skills they will need for a successful future career in construction.”

He added: “Extracting the skills test from the qualification would not only undermine the current high standard of apprenticeship training in construction but, as our survey shows, would have a hugely damaging impact on future recruitment of apprentices. Furthermore, we are concerned that removing the skills test will lead to a ‘fast track’ approach to apprenticeships by some training providers, thereby undermining the very nature of our apprenticeship model.”

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