A look at training, apprenticeships and de-skilling in the construction and engineering industries

A look at training, apprenticeships and de-skilling in the construction and engineering industries

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.

Posted By

Sep 15 2013 18:39


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Sep 24 2013 09:06

Hey, really good article, thanks for writing it.

My Council has started taking on apprentices. As you say they are disproportionately female and in admin, but instead of paying a contract worker £12 + an hour with pension they get to pay £2-something an hour instead for the younger ones. It is a racket.

We have also noticed that the apprentices are disproportionately white, so this is something we're taking up with management - as yet being an apprentice is often a crap deal but for many people it's better than no job at all.

Noah Fence
Sep 24 2013 16:53

Yep agreed, very good article and totally squares with my experience.
This can throw up some really daft anomalies as well - on a recent job the main contractor wouldn't accept any operatives that didn't have a formal qualification which meant that I, with 30 years experience, and my workmate with around 12 were substituted with a guy that has been in the job for 8 months because he has an NVQ! The funniest thing was that the NVQ For a different trade than the job that needed doing!!! It was no skin off my nose on this occasion but this sort of thing could definitely create resentment which could present opportunities for divide and rule as mentioned.
I heard something about Labour having a plan for which will make it compulsory for companies to create one apprenticeship for every immigrant worker that they employ. I don't know if it's true but what a massive pile of horseshit that would be. I can definitely see that resulting in two workers sharing one wage. Fucking wankers.

Joseph Kay
Sep 24 2013 17:52

Yeah, this is important. I've been thinking about doing a blog about the disappearance of 'entry level' jobs. Last time i was signing on, there was a sign advertising work experience (workfare) in a load of roles like clerical assistant, kitchen porter, telesales etc - all jobs which didn't used to require much experience. For a long time desirable, well paid middle class jobs - law, NGOs etc - have used unpaid internships as a class filter. The bizarre thing now is you're expected to work for nothing and/or pay for meaningless training to even be in with a chance of a formerly entry level job for shit pay. It's a buyers market, and the buyers are cunts.

Sep 25 2013 15:35

I do not know if this is relevant, as much has changed since I trained as an apprentice, however in the hope it is useful I’m posting this:

I was living in Glasgow and left school with no qualifications. I then became a pre-apprentice at David Dale College, near Bridgeton Cross for a year. We were instructed in various trades, a month apart in the mornings which included blacksmithing, pattern making, turning, milling, and electrical, etc. The afternoons were for classroom study: maths, English, technical drawing.

Then I got lucky, and after being turned down as an apprentice by Stephen’s of Linthouse Shipyard, I started serving my time in a large machining factory at Hillington Industrial Estate as a five year engineering apprentice. It was all boys and there were two types of apprenticeships ‘trade’ and ‘technical’. The technical boys were considered academic as they had passed some ‘o’ levels. I obviously was trade.

The first year of the apprenticeship (my intake had about fifty boys – though not all completed) was usually spent in a special department ‘The Training Centre’. This involved one or two lectures a week and three months each of experiencing ‘fitting’; ‘turning’; ‘milling’ and ‘grinding’. All the necessary machinery was inside the training centre. After a year the boys were given placements in different areas round the factory. These usually lasted six months at a time, until the last year, when the lad was allocated their ‘final’ placement (by an agreement with the training supervisor, the lad and the apprentice’s union convener – who was a member of the joint trade’s works committee).

I was different as after a few months in the training centre I was asked if I would like to change courses and become a sheet metal worker (this trade still had the status of a ‘craft’ which was thought to necessitate specialist training). The instructors said I appeared to like working with my hands and metal work would offer me more scope to do this than if I became a turner, etc. The idea of escaping the training centre and getting out onto the factory floor appealed to me so I agreed to the offer. There was also another benefit though I did not realise it at the time. The firm sent their boys on ‘block release’ of several weeks at a time, to study at an engineering college. This meant they were all together and fairly easily monitored. On the other hand, I had ‘day release’ (one day a week during term time) and I was mixing with metal workers from all over Glasgow.

The main point of writing this is to stress the comprehensive nature of an old style apprenticeship. It was considered imperative that an apprentice learn all aspects of his trade including those not immediately pertinent to the job that he was being asked to do. A skilled person should be adept at everything within the demarcation lines of his trade. For an example a fifth year metal worker apprentice usually worked under a journeyman though he should be fairly independent. He was not usually expected to have the same production work rate as a fully skilled man, but he could work to drawings, weld with gas, argon & electric, braise, solder, set and use all the forming machines, etc.

The main demarcation line we had was to work up to a thickness of an eighth of an inch (or as we would term it ‘10’ on the wire gauge) but not go over the line. Any gauge over an eighth was an engineer’s work, or in the shipyards a boilermaker’s. We protected their jobs and they protected ours.

An advantage of this system was that if someone had the engineer’s famous ‘green union card’, the job was in the hands of someone who had been judged competent and was not a bleeding cowboy. The drawback for the bosses was they were relatively expensive to train, even when paid crap apprentice wages.

I remember reading that years ago the Spanish CNT prided itself in its member’s workmanship and it was a reason they found employment. Unfortunately the game has changed and everything now appears expendable.

Sep 24 2013 21:33
Joseph Kay wrote:
Yeah, this is important. I've been thinking about doing a blog about the disappearance of 'entry level' jobs.

very true. The number of "entry-level" job you see that say you need at least two years experience is a joke.

I feel bad for people 10 years younger than me. When I started in the job market at 18 in 2000, I found it reasonably easy to get temp jobs at least getting £6 an hour. Now in the public sector at least, young people/graduates are competing against workers with 20 years experience who have been made redundant, so basically don't stand a chance even at getting crappy temp jobs for the most part.