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Alarming skills gap could be solved

The West Midlands has been identified as one of the key UK regions for tackling a shortage of trade and construction skills, new figures reveal.

“Alarming” new stats from the UK Trade Skills Index 2023 report show just 2,120 construction and trade apprentices started placements in the West Midlands in 2021/22 – around 8% of the total in England.

That's the second lowest of all the English regions, despite it accounting for over £9bn in construction output – a figure higher than the East Midlands, Yorkshire and North East.

The UK Trade Skills Index 2023 was commissioned by tradesperson directory Checkatrade.com and undertaken by leading independent macro-economic research firm Capital Economics.

In addition to the stats surrounding the West Midlands, the report also depicts the “perfect storm” facing the UK construction and repairs industry, with a huge skills gap and trade sector vacancies at record highs. It added that the skills gap is being exacerbated by an ageing workforce, an exodus of EU workers post-Brexit, and the cost-of-living crisis. 

It found that the UK needs almost a million new recruits in trades and construction over the next decade just to keep pace with demand.

The report’s findings have been described by entrepreneur and investor Richard Harpin, chairman of Checkatrade.com in 2017, as both “urgent and alarming”.

Together, Richard and Checkatrade.com are spearheading a series of new projects aiming to tackle the challenge, focused on school leavers and young people aged under 25.

This spring, they will unite to launch “Get In”, a new campaign aimed at getting thousands more young people aged 16 to 25 into trades careers through apprenticeships. Get In will seek to capture young people’s CVs and connect them to opportunities within Checkatrade.com’s membership base, as well as large trade employers and SME trade businesses.

The new campaign is aiming to run pilots in the London and the Southeast, and the West Midlands this year, before a planned national roll-out in 2024.

Richard said: “The figures revealed in our UK Trade Skills Index 2023 report should come as a wake-up call to everyone involved in the trade and construction industry, but also they should be seen as a genuine opportunity for the West Midlands, which is a hotbed for trade talent.

“Although we expect the economy to continue to be squeezed in 2023, the construction sector is finding itself in an increasingly alarming situation caused by Brexit, an ageing workforce and the cost-of-living crisis. Combined, this is creating a perfect storm in the industry, and causing a widening skills gap, which we must address.

“Let us be in no doubt: the sector faces urgent and concerning challenges now and over the next decade. It’s incumbent on both businesses and Government to come together and act before it’s too late.”

It is the third year in a row the annual UK Trade Skills Index has been published. It said that of the 937,000 tradespeople reported to be needed to meet demand within the next decade, nearly a quarter of a million - 244,000 - must be qualified apprentices in order to plug a growing skills gap. 

The report also laid bare concerning statistics regarding output and employment in construction. It suggested the skills gap could lead to a further blow to the Government, which is expected to miss its housebuilding target of 300,000 new homes each year.

Most pressingly, it said vacancies in the trades are now at record highs, with widespread shortages particularly prevalent among plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters and electricians. 

The UK has seen a sharp rise in skills shortages across construction – from 29 per cent at the start of 2021 to 55 per cent at the end of the year 2021 – and these shortages persisted through 2022.

Additionally, it showed that despite an anticipated short-term fall in construction output, the UK must ramp up the number of completed construction apprentices to avoid the skills gap worsening – an increase of around 34 per cent above the current levels.

Melanie Waters, former CEO of Help For Heroes who has been appointed to oversee the new campaigns, added: “This is an urgent problem, but there is a solution. We must do everything we can now to encourage younger generations to consider a career in the trades.

“It’s important we recognise apprenticeships are going to be crucial to the future of the industry in helping bridge that divide. Expect our new campaign, called Get In, to make waves in terms of tackling this challenge, and we’re looking forward to working with the industry, Government, and regional decision makers to take action and inspire a new generation of tradespeople into our industry.”