As the scramble for work inside the engineering and construction industries continues, finding experienced, skilled workers is proving a problem for employers.
The past 10 years has seen an explosion in the growth of training centres offering shortcut paths to re-skilling in the engineering and building industries. Industry bodies representing their commercial membership have colluded in lowering the previous expectation of having served an apprenticeship; the result seeing a dramatic lowering of standards and an increase in available labour. Whereas previous generations of builders and engineers were expected to undertake a 4 year apprenticeship, training courses have been set up and approved by industry bodies that will see training reduced, depending on trade, to as low as 5 days.
Despite being counter-intuitive, the engineering and construction industries above all are suffering from the lack of substance in successive government claims of ever increasing apprenticeships and training programs.
The apprenticeship racket
The overall national number of "apprenticeships" has risen year on year from 2005, but taken that many of these apprenticeships are in retail or similar roles where having served formal training is unnecessary - apprenticeships can be a cheap way of paying for admin whilst ticking the social responsibility box. More than half of recorded apprenticeships in 2011/12 were in business admin.
The very meaning of the word "apprentice" has been somewhat twisted to suit the needs of both government and companies as they seek to fill quota numbers . Previous stereotypes of an apprentice from previous generations might have been a male 16 to 20 year old, outfitted in overalls and steel toe-cap boots. Their future would have been almost assured; four years of training would have produced a skilled worker that could command a decent wage. Fortunately, today's average apprentice is likely to be more representative of actual workers inasmuch that they are female and over 25 years old, however there are overall blatant gender imbalances in who applies and who fills the posts of worthwhile apprenticeships, the kind that are likely to lead to well paid and respected jobs. So yes, more apprenticeship jobs are filled by women - though the question as to the quality of that job once trained must be asked. Although women have begun inroads into construction and engineering, sadly the posts are still overwhelmingly filled by men.
Arguably, most apprenticeships today can be nothing less than a cheaper way of filling low pay, low skilled jobs - latterday YOP schemes with pretentions. Government support, financial and political, of the don't-ask-too-many-questions variety is testimony enough that calling anything that involves training "apprenticeships" goes a long way in silencing calls for jobs for young unemployed workers. The government currently pays all training costs for workers aged 16 to 18 and 50% for those aged 19 to 24. There are also allowances of up to 50% for those aged over 25.
So what has this got to do with the construction and engineering industries? Being able to claim that there is a national year on year increase in apprenticeships, regardless of their worth, plays only a part in distracting from the clear lack of skilled workers. The picture is made further unclear by the enormous amount of people emerging from what used to be known as "dilutey" training courses, even now there are so many people who have entered our industries in this manner that "diluted" is very much becoming the norm. Under no circumstances should the criticisms of these courses be levelled at the attendees; more often than not they are adult trainees who have paid with their own money, eager to get on and only too willing to work hard. However, this is where we find ourselves; few real apprentices - and workmates that only 3 months before may have been fighting in Afganistan, now trying to make sense of wiring diagrams and site drawings. Let's take a look at these training courses.
Training: because it makes them rich
I suppose people's expectations of how long and how hard you might need to work at things to become any good may vary, but would you expect to legitimately call yourself a skilled trades person if you only attended a 2 month course? It's not the attendees fault; these courses represent the only entry point into many trades, and employers may or may not employ you even if you have little experience, and afterall, we all need to earn. And as 4 year apprenticeships become increasingly rare and the average age of skilled workers increase (the average age for electricians is climbing closer to 50) then there are 2 main groups of workers that can fill these jobs - migrant workers (often the better trained) or the under-trained.
Previously, the construction and engineering industry bodies expected workers to be highly skilled and to have undergone apprenticeships, with on the job training and college tuition - nowadays, those wanting to pursue jobs in these trades need only stump up the required princely sum to a training centre of their choice (these courses are not cheap) and donate perhaps a few weeks of time. You can become a plumber in "10 to 20 days" of practical training at one training centre, while you study theory at home. That's 2 to 4 working weeks. Other training centres offer crash courses to become an electrician - some even specialising in industrial 3 phase electrics, the type of electrics that when you're zapped, you stay zapped. Want a job in the nuclear industry? Then maybe you can learn how to be a welder in a few weeks: what can go wrong? And of course, the get rich quick course - gas fitting. Job's a good 'un.
Training centres have even geared up for specific markets, possibly one of the most lucrative is at aimed at those leaving the armed forces. Leaving the forces with typically around £5k in a set aside training fund for their personal use, many service leavers are sold training packages of the type described above often by fellow former service men and women who have set up training centres. Bizarrely, service leavers can find themselves trained in how to be a commercial gas fitter by someone they served with the previous year in a war zone - the job of trainer itself is another career in which ex-forces can pursue. Having never worked in the trade they are training others to be isn't necessarily considered a set back in world of training; the assumption being that a qualified trainer can teach anything.
Some training centres will take more of your hard earned to provide "on the job training." This in itself is what real training is about, and so accreditation bodies may ask for photographic evidence to be included in training portfolios and then signed-off by the trades-person the trainee was assigned to. Fair enough, except for the amount of testimonies from furious trainees that having handed over something in the region of £7,000 have been hurded into minibuses and driven to a flat where a almighty photoshoot takes place involving a tick list and a box of tools. There are even tales where trainees are abandoned in houses while the trainer has to go off and do another job where the cortège is unwelcome.
Some training centres have split up areas of various trades in just the same way Henry Ford did, making it easier for trainees who may not have the time or funds for endless courses to specialise in one area such as bathroom fitting. Even the industry bodies have adopted this approach; gas fitting is effectively a collection of modules put together to suit the needs of the operative/business.
Further down the scale is the training that the government may fund for unemployed workers. Basic site safety awareness, forklift driving, asbestos awareness - these training centres are notorious for taking government money, getting trainees through the door and away as fast as possible whether you turn up or not. Government pays - it's all good.
And the damage?
From a workers point of view, it's not a pretty sight seeing so many ways in which fellow workers are ripped off and made to jump through so many hoops in order to get a start. Newly trained workers are, to be blunt, usually unemployable. However, such is the demand for skilled, experienced workers (yes, even in times of recession) that it isn't uncommon to expect to be working with someone recently retrained and out of their depth. Because of this, it would seem most re-trained workers go the self employed route. Indeed, some self employed ex-forces workers actually advertise that they were recently in the services, clearly believing this a selling point over the consequential admission of being brand new to the trade they often claim to be experts at.
Having workers who have more to lose than those with decades of experience can often throw up problems around workplace organising; indeed, there are certainly cases of bosses getting at these workers when a struggle is ongoing, promising full time contracts and even promotion, tempting stuff if you forked out a small fortune and could be out on your arse.
There's also issues around pay. Often re-trained workers are promised the earth in wages, but half the going rate can be a step up from what they are used to. And this can present problems. A glut of workers only happy to be on the team and who are either happy with the going rate, or prepared to work for a lot less flies in the face of how established skilled workers in the construction and engineering feel about the pay freezes they've suffered for years.
Sometimes the re-training that workers undertake is only one particular area of a trade, paving the way to de-skilling, and with this all the expected negatives such as lower pay. This has been seen many times before in our industries and quite often those that can only do one part of a trade can command less money than those who are fully trained. However, this also has knock-on effects for the whole industry, driving everyone's wages down for the simple reason that someone with 30 years experience is no longer required.
What can we do?
The bigger picture, that of tackling inferior training in our industries, will need concerted organising from the ground up. The existing reformist unions do very little beyond drafting the occasional critique of the situation, and as organised militancy is an alien concept to them, this fight may be one that grassroots workers feed into themselves in the absence of any fighting union.
From a workplace organiser level, we must remember never to blame re-trained workers for this situation, and to resist any temptation to ostracise them at work. We need each other now and moving forwards, if anything like a militant rank and file union is ever to come about in our industries. From a personal point of view, I've experienced many re-trained workers and make a point of welcoming them onboard, whilst suggesting some comradely advice about sticking together, here's some pointers:
Don't let the bosses divide and conquer (which has happened in the past).
Make them aware that they need the help of experienced workers more than anyone (if you can't do your job, no boss wants you regardless of how flexible you are).
Get them to understand that if you side with fellow workers, they'll side with you.
Ask them about previous union activities, encourage them to think along union lines and to see this as another way of protecting their own position.
Industry bodies have opened the door to what is an insidious attack on terms and conditions from employers, using desperate workers to try and lower the going rate and normalise de-skilling. It's up to us on the shop floor to stem the rot now; and before we have any chance to reverse the situation we need to build solidarity, build militancy and to embrace our new workmates as we would our old.