T-levels: Plugging the Skills Gap

Here, Jackie Biswell, Managing Director of Apex Roofing, explores the role these vocational qualifications will play in construction recovery post-COVID and plugging the skills gap that has plagued the industry for years.

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Jackie Biswell

Managing Director of Apex Roofing

A recent survey of tradespeople revealed that 78% think it’s crucial the industry recruits more apprentices, with 57% believing they are currently underutilised.

It’s not surprising that those already in the workforce want some extra help. After all, they are the ones who have to deal with the impact of the ongoing skills gap – the result of high demand and not a lot of capacity to fulfil it.

This was the result of contraction caused by the 2007 recession followed by a vast number of stalwarts reaching retirement age and a lack of new blood coming into the industry – a consequence of the poor image of construction as a viable career path and no education on the opportunities available to school-leavers.

Enter the T-levels

These have been designed as new two-year courses which follow GCSEs and are equivalent to three A-levels and were developed in collaboration with employers and businesses to meet the needs of the industry.

They involve a mixture of classroom learning and ‘on-the-job’ experience which is ideal for our sector where hands-on learning can be the most effective.

But they have had to leap a number of hurdles to come to fruition – the most recent of which has been the coronavirus outbreak.

A number of providers due to teach the first T-levels delayed delivery for at least a year due to the coronavirus pandemic – and one pulled out altogether.

However, Skills Minister Gillian Keegan pushed forward with the remaining 44 providers to launch T-levels from September 2020 because “we owe it to these young people to find ways to continue to deliver the courses that they have chosen and that will offer them great progression opportunities”.

They also hugely benefit the construction industry, which will largely rely on this technical education to create the skilled workforce of the future.

There have been concerns raised that the new measures might threaten to overshadow established apprenticeships, but I would argue that offering a wider range of vocational sectors can only be a good thing.

And the T-levels put employers in the driving seat, ensuring that the courses on offer meet their specific needs.

In contrast, apprenticeships have, in the past, been criticised for not delivering the candidates and the skills needed for particular sectors.

Offering young people more options when it comes to higher education is essential to making sure that our skilled sectors, such as roofing retain key skills and have a steady intake of young talent.

As T-levels find their footing as an option for young people considering a career in our sector, I would like to see training providers working more closely with employers to guide students through the training process.

One thing that has been greatly lacking in the current apprenticeship schemes is training providers that communicate well with employers and offer guidance not just to the student, but to the employer too about how to help candidates learn what is required for them to do well.

In my experience, it has been left to the candidate to bridge the communications gap between employer and course, which is less than ideal, and I have often had to step in and proactively update them so that the pressure is taken off of the student.

I hope that this new focus on employer-led standards should serve to change both issues.

There is no doubt that higher technical qualifications will provide a natural progression route for young people taking new T-levels from 2020 or A-levels, and adults looking to upskill or retrain, enabling them to take the next step up and gain higher technical skills in key subjects like STEM, something which can only help this country out of the current skills crisis.

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