How modern apprenticeships and T levels really stack up

T levels and modern apprenticeships are the newest contenders to step onto the training stage. CN looks at how they are performing against the competition

It’s no surprise that Steve Umbers is a fan of apprenticeship training. His 20-year career path through the construction industry has taken him from being an apprentice to his current position of director at mechanical and electrical engineering consultancy CPW. He is now a champion for the Department for Education’s Skills for Life campaign, which promotes apprenticeships, T levels and other priority skills programmes. “I’m passionate about supporting our new and existing apprentices as they embark on journeys of their own,” he says.

Young people have a host of qualifications to help them start out in the industry, including NVQs, BTECs, HNDs, HNCs and degrees. Levy-funded modern apprenticeships and T levels are the newest routes that can lead to a career in construction. But how useful are employers finding these new additions to the training toolbox?

Construction has a tradition of recruiting by word of mouth, using networks of friends and family to fill vacancies. But like every other industry it needs a well-trained, well-educated and well-prepared workforce. Untrained and inexperienced staff can be a health and safety risk, perform substandard work and may be less productive, leading to project overruns.

Around 200,000 workers enter and leave the industry every year, meaning the viability of the sector relies on constantly training new talent. Unsurprisingly, qualified construction workers are generally viewed more favourably than those who are unqualified. Tim Balcon, chief executive of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), says that those who come into the sector with a formal qualification stay longer, progress more quickly, and become the leaders and business owners of the future, therefore contributing to the resilience of the sector.

Balcon himself is a former apprentice. He speaks highly of the skills he learnt, the support from his company and the overall experience. “The apprenticeship was the biggest, most impactful thing that’s happened to me in terms of my professional life, because it got me started, it gave me that grounding, it gave me a skill, it gave me a standard of living that I wouldn’t have got anywhere else,” he says.

“There’s no one qualification prized above others – different roles require different kinds of expertise and qualifications”

Liz Garvey, FM Conway

Umbers also credits the training he received, and the hands-on experience that came with it, as the foundation for his industry longevity and the wealth of knowledge that helped him reach his current position.

And using CPW as a very rudimentary litmus test, apprenticeships are also very popular with today’s young learners. The Solihull-based company had 70 applicants for the firm’s 2024 intake of between 15 and 20 apprentices.

Balcon describes apprenticeships as “the flagship recruitment programme in construction”, and according to a UK government website they offer the hands-on exposure to the industry that is so highly prized by employers. At the same time, Level 3 apprenticeships – equivalent to A levels – have lower educational requirements than graduate placements or summer internships. Level 2 apprenticeships are equivalent to GCSE level and are a common route into trades like roofing. Level 4-5 apprenticeships are equivalent to a foundational degree, while Level 6-7 apprenticeships are equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, so have even higher entry requirements.

The importance of work experience

All employers that Construction News spoke to were unanimous that practical, hands-on work experience – an integral component of an apprenticeship – is invaluable in building competence for a career in construction. Liz Garvey, HR director at FM Conway, says qualifications “can take a learner part of the way”, but employers need to help them embed their learning and knowledge with hands-on experience and support on real jobs. While work experience and on-the-job-training can also be gained through degrees that include an industrial placement, they have more stringent entry requirements than Level 3 apprenticeships.

Ryan Mayor, early careers development manager at Balfour Beatty, echoes Garvey’s view. He says that a placement in the desired industry or target organisation gives the learner an opportunity to “combine both their academic studies with real-world experience, sampling the unique culture and operational realities of that specific organisation”. The placements he refers to include work experience that form part of an apprenticeship or a degree.

T levels also contain a strong element of work experience. They operate on a similar principle to apprenticeships but with a higher classroom-to-on-the-job ratio. While T-level learners spend 80 per cent of their time in the classroom, apprentices can spend as little as 20 per cent of their working hours in ‘off-the-job’ training.

T levels entered the training landscape in 2020, but last year were criticised by Ofsted for having been “implemented with varying degrees of success”. The onsite construction T-level pathway had a pass rate of 80 per cent in 2022/23 compared with an average of 95 per cent across all subjects.

“The construction sector has a responsibility to better understand how T levels are being positioned in schools”

Iain Lindsay, Sisk

Some employers are very supportive of T levels, however. Mayor sees them as a great way “to gain industry experience and insight to support skills development”. For Katie Pinder, emerging talent lead at Mace, T levels form part of the pipeline into the Mace apprenticeship programme. In the past two years the firm has recruited between 20 and 30 T-level placements each year from a range of further education colleges. She concedes that T levels continue to evolve, saying that Mace is being flexible while the kinks are being smoothed out with this new qualification.

In particular, the exact purpose and function of T levels is not clear to all employers. One of the employers CN spoke to says that his company is still trying to understand them and has sought clarification on the precise level of education they correspond to. They ask: “From what I can gather, it is sort of between GCSE and A level. Is that right?”

Such teething problems and lack of understanding about T levels can be put down to their relative novelty, according to Balcon. He adds that they represent a bridge between school and vocational education and says that they have, on occasion, been misrepresented to employers. “Sometimes they are used in areas where they don’t fit,” he says. “Some employers have picked up the message somehow that T levels are there to make people competent in the full range of construction skills and they are not. They can’t possibly do that because of the nature of construction.” However, he says that some of the managerial skills T levels provide excellent preparation for learners to move into construction work.

Despite the confusion over their role, Mayor says he sees value in T levels. “They are a great way to gain industry experience and insight, to support skills development,” he says.

Iain Lindsay, head of talent at Sisk, also thinks they are valuable, though he says: “The construction sector has a responsibility to better understand how T levels are being positioned in schools, so that learners have a clear picture of the training they are to receive and where it can take them.”

Better guidance

There is a considerable array of apprenticeships and T levels on offer in the construction and built environment pathway, with 51 listed on the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE) website. IFATE is an employer-led organisation that develops, approves and reviews apprenticeships. It has also produced occupational maps that can guide prospective learners, showing them potential career paths that could follow on from a particular apprenticeship. Pinder is a fan of these route maps, but Lindsay would like to see colleges and other training providers offer learners more guidance to help them make better decisions around their career goals. “They will only achieve this if we open our doors and share what we do,” he says.

“Apprenticeships have been revitalised many times, but this isn’t always the best approach to getting a job in the heritage craft sector”

Dr Emma Wells, SLR

There were no complaints from those that CN spoke to about apprenticeships as a pathway for talent into modern construction. However, the same cannot be said for more niche sectors. Companies and organisations in the historic skills sector offer apprenticeships but they are few and far between, according to Dr Emma Wells, technical director and head of historic buildings at SLR. She says: “For what we do, the apprenticeships have been revitalised many times, but this isn’t always the best approach to getting a job in the heritage craft sector. There’s always a big push from government but this doesn’t necessarily equate to take-up or jobs.” However, she puts this down to a lack of jobs at the end of a vocational qualification, and a limited number of heritage construction companies to facilitate the provision of apprenticeships.

With an announcement in March 2024 to fund younger apprentices at small businesses, and pump an additional £60m into apprenticeship funding, the government is looking to produce ever more apprentices. This funding comes on top of the seven-year-old apprenticeship levy.

No clear winner

One sentiment universally held by those who CN spoke to is that apprenticeships and T levels aren’t inherently better than other routes into the construction industry or vice versa. “There’s no one qualification that is prized above others – different roles require different kinds of expertise and qualifications,” says Garvey. People with varying learning styles may have preferences for the amount of academic or classroom-based training they want to receive, and the employers advise that this should dictate the qualification they enrol for. And that they all add value to the talent coming into the sector. “We need the traditional degree routes and apprenticeships working well. We also need the T level, NVQ and other secondary education working well for us or we just won’t have enough people to feed our industry,” says Lindsay.

With no clear preference for the qualification that new entrants possess, construction provides a level playing field for progression. Ultimately, the differentiating factor is the individual leaner, their attitude and the direction they want to take their career. “We don’t have a bar to entry. It’s more about what that individual can bring to the table and then we can mould that and take them on a journey they want to go on,” says Umbers.

Personal traits desired by construction employers include resilience, on-the-spot
problem solving skills, adaptability and a desire for learning. Lindsay says these qualities help employers identify who will be successful in their journey. Russ Forshaw, director at MC Construction, hammers home this point, saying: “For all of the people we meet and employ, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I’m a big believer you can teach the necessary skills to the right people and develop them with you.”

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