Electrical apprentice Dylan Priestley shunned university in favour of learning a trade, as part of a new generation of highly-prized construction workers.
The 21-year-old is one of more than 100 young people at the Scarborough Construction Skills Village in North Yorkshire, operated by community interest company Northern Regeneration.
His decision to undertake a nationally-accredited apprenticeship instead of three years of debt-inducing university is not unique among his peers - and at a time when the CITB's Construction Skills Network says the country needs as many as 250,000 more people like these trainees over the next five years to meet the country's needs.
The chances of building up that skills resource look as shaky as the chances of achieving the government's current pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, especially as there have been 12 housing ministers over the past 12 years. So Dylan's qualifications will be in huge demand as will those of his peers as joiners, construction managers and electronics technicians are among the top skilled workers needed by contractors. He said:
“I wanted to get an apprenticeship rather than go to university. I’m now developing a career for life. There are a lot of opportunities. The tuition I receive is hands-on, mixing the practical as well as the theory.”
He studied business and sport at Scarborough Sixth Form. While undertaking the electrical tuition at the skills village, he is an apprentice to qualified Scarborough electrician Paul Huggins, a member of the local RNLI crew who offered free electrical repair services to the elderly and vulnerable during covid.
Other apprentices at the Construction Skills Village have turned down the offers from universities such as Durham, or even when achieved a degree, have taken up a career in joinery – amid a growing debate about the value of GCSE and A-level exams for the next generation.
Kieran Robertson, now 29, is a joinery trainer - at the same skills village, where he was a trainee. Kieran holds a degree from Northumbria University, and has since worked on two major house-building sites. He said:
“We have a learning environment that teaches the skills you need to be self-employed and training up new apprentices."
Another trainee is Josh Levy, 19, learning to be an electrician. He said:
“You learn everything and I’m looking forward to being qualified.”
Annual recruitment requirement in the huge combined area of Yorkshire and the Humber is 2.1% per year - slightly above the UK figure of 2% and means an extra 20,950 workers will be needed between now and 2026. That includes wood trades and interior fit-out and bricklayers, as well as shortages in almost every other aspect of hands-on work and management.
Scarborough Borough Council, which is to be subsumed by a new North Yorkshire unitary authority next spring, has said that it needs 9,000 new homes over the next decade. It is also facing an affordable homes crisis and needs to double the number of currently being built between now and 2038 if demand is to be met. This means 3,300 are needed in a 16-year period, a council report said.
Regionally - in addition to housing shortages - there will be growing demand for construction workers for the 3.7gw power generation capacity from Hornsea Two, Dogger Bank A and B wind farms. The CITB is the industrial training board for the construction industry in Britain and has urged industry and government to jointly refresh recruitment and training, making construction a more attractive career choice.
The housing shortage and the green construction agenda have cemented a deeper concern on the skills gaps - and especially when more than 90% of even new homes are said to require retro-fitting to make them meet carbon-reduction targets.
On the Construction Skills Network report, CITB chief executive Tim Balcon said:
“Construction is vital in supporting the backbone of the UK economy. These future growth projections are encouraging after the stalling effects of the pandemic. However, this is set against a current backdrop of higher energy costs, material shortages, and associated price inflation that is currently hitting companies across the sector. The industry has a lot to offer, and there is so much potential to engage in a career that sees you enter the industry as an apprentice and leave it as a chief executive."
In a speech shortly before he stepped down, Boris Johnson referred to his government’s manifesto pledge of building 300,000 homes a year - a target which some of the leadership contenders openly questioned, including Liz Truss. She said she wanted to replace such "top-down" targets with fiscal incentives for home builders to generate economic growth.
In 2019-20 there were 242,700 net additional dwellings, which fell to 216,490 in 2020-21, and includes new builds, homes converted to flats or commercial buildings switching to domestic use.
Dylan's apprenticeship is part of a current cohort at the Construction Skills Village which is creating life-time careers for new bricklayers, joiners, plasterers, plumbers, electricians and groundworkers, as well as free, fully-funded plant training for people who want to move into more highly-paid employment.
The skills village is open to unemployed people or to anyone wanting a career change or to upskill. Its training scheme has been boosted by more than £500,000 from the Scarborough Town Deal under the government's Towns Fund, aimed at the much-vaunted "levelling-up" agenda.
The new waves of apprentices will help to fill the huge skills gaps for house-building and maintenance – and, equally crucially, support the area’s trades people and building companies.
By December the skills village aims to support a further 50 apprenticeships.
"I am delighted that we are creating real skills for so many people - teenagers as well as adults," said Graham Ratcliffe, head of Northern Regeneration. "Our story is about education and industry working together in real, practical ways. Some of our apprentices could have gone to university, some were working as pot-washers in cafes. They now have the prospect of well-paid jobs for life, building the country's infrastructure - and they look at life differently. They start looking at the design and shape of buildings as they walk about, it's a transformative outlook for them. They are studying with us part of the week, and learning functional maths and English as well as skills from experienced tutors - and at the same time apprenticed to trades people who can then in turn, do more. It is so important to be developing useful skills where there is such a shortage, and by gaining real experience on a working site environment in all weathers, we are providing new careers."
The apprentices are based at the dedicated construction training site at Middle Deepdale, Musham Bank Road, Eastfield, off the A64, where they learn from experienced trainers and assessors while working alongside qualified tradespeople on local developments.
The Construction Skills Village started from scratch in 2015. It uses local supply chains to help youngsters through apprenticeship and forges relationships with builders and local trades people. Mr Ratcliffe added:
"We are keeping skills-learning local. The skills village means that people don't have to travel out of the area. They like our environment where it's a real learning site not a classroom and they are regarded as working people not students. It’s an exciting time to learn a trade – there is so much demand and great opportunities for people of all ages, earning while learning."
He paid tribute to the support of Scarborough Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council and the Scarborough Town Deal board.
"The support of council leaders and managers and our local MPs Robert Goodwill and Kevin Hollinrake, has been crucial in enabling us to provide aspiration and skills for young people and for adults wanting to expand their job potential."
Scarborough Borough Council chief executive, Mike Greene, referred to the skills village operators and apprentices as part of the town’s “super heroes” at an awards event. He says:
“I’ve long believed that the construction skills village is a jewel in Scarborough's employment crown which continues to go from strength to strength. The achievement earlier this year of another 100 new tradesmen and women being trained to national standards was a fantastic milestone and is to be celebrated. Not only are the facilities first class, the quality of the training is consistently high. This means young people on the Yorkshire coast are being equipped with the skills they need to forge a long and successful career in the construction industry.“
Town Deal chairman David Kerfoot said after a visit to the skills village:
“What a project - using local supply chains, helping youngsters through apprenticeships and forging relationships with builders.”
Scarborough and Whitby MP Robert Goodwill, who spoke at the skills village presentation for its apprentices at their newly-relocated training site, said:
“I was absolutely amazed at the progress that has been made developing the new skills village at its permanent site, utilising redundant farm buildings. These must be the best facilities in the country. It is particularly important that we can conduct this kind of apprenticeship training on the coast as so much development is taking place and will take place in the area. There are dozens of job opportunities that will flow from this and I want to see local lads and lasses taking advantage of it.”