Construction is facing a skills crisis across the board. Years of under-investment in education and training have left the UK lacking the people needed to design, plan, manage and construct desperately-needed homes, retrofit, and infrastructure.
This squeeze on the labour market is slowing down projects, driving up costs, and undermining UK competitiveness and productivity. Ben Flatman takes a closer look at how T levels might help to change the education landscape.
The lack of skilled staff to supply the construction industry is exacerbated by the widely held view that vocational training is inferior to conventional academic qualifications. For most young people, and their parents, A levels and a university degree are still perceived as the route to better-paid, white-collar jobs.
This is despite the fact that vocational courses can offer a cost-effective way to access a wide range of positive career routes, from well-paid, entry-level jobs all the way through to degree apprenticeships and conventional degrees.
For architecture the issues are slightly different. Architecture remains a popular course at university degree level, but the cost and length of training is increasingly seen as a barrier to creating a more diverse profession. There are also longstanding concerns that the separation of architectural education from its historic place in practice, has led to a deskilling of the profession.
The ARB’s proposed education reforms are also intended to help reintroduce apprenticeships and workplace learning as mainstream pathways to becoming an architect.
Now, as part of a wider attempt to boost skills training, and give vocational qualifications a higher status, the government is rolling out a new system that has apprenticeships and T levels at its heart.
The T level is supposed to be equivalent to an A level, and provide a route either directly into work, to one of the apprenticeships, or a degree.
But when will the new system start showing results? After all, inspection body Ofsted just last month warned the qualifications need “considerable work” before they can fulfil their potential, highlighting shortages of qualified staff to train students, problems finding suitable placements and high drop-out rates.
And can the T Level system address long-standing scepticism around the value of vocational education in the UK?
According to the IPPR, the UK is stuck in a “growth doom loop” caused by a decade of underinvestment. Many believe the situation is exacerbated by a systematic failure to provide the workforce, and particularly young people, with the skills they need to succeed in industry.
Before Brexit, the UK used to get round this problem by drafting in hundreds of thousands of skilled EU workers each year to plug the gaps. Now that the EU’s labour market is harder to access, UK firms have begun to hire people from outside the EU.
Net-migration to the UK (now largely from outside the EU) has soared, and yet the country still does not have the right people in the right places to meet the demand from employers. The government insists that the answer is to train more people in the UK to fill the gaps in the jobs market.
Frustrated employers wonder how long it is going to take to bring these people on line. And, while some welcome the government’s attempts to get industry more involved in training, there are plenty of companies that resent the shift towards a model where employers take more responsbility for equipping the workforce with the skills that companies need.
How did we get into this mess? Vocational education has been a fraught area for the UK for decades, if not centuries.
Despite Britain having led the industrial revolution, by the late-19th century Germany was widely perceived to have stolen a march in terms of the quality and scope of the vocational training and apprenticeships it offered. German workers had become more productive than their UK counterparts, and Germany was well on its way to becoming the manufacturing powerhouse that it remains today.
Ever since then, the UK’s approach to vocational education has had something of the panicked quality of the left behind. While not exactly unsuccessful, the UK’s system has never quite been able to match the German or Austrian systems in terms of desirability for prospective students or employers.
In Germany there is a separate school system for technically focused education, and close to 60% of school leavers go on to complete an apprenticeship. Meanwhile, UK schools have a relatively poor track record on vocational education, with most provision coming from further education colleges.
People are beginning to say: Look, this is just crazy, we can’t carry on like this
Iain Parker, Turner & Townsend alinea
The UK is also still in the relatively early stages of rolling out its complex, four-tiered apprenticeship system.
Recent figures show that entry-level apprenticeship starts – normally taken by younger people – fell in the UK by 72% between 2014 and 2021. Over a similar period, apprenticeship starts in SMEs fell by 36%. This coincided with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy and the pandemic.
At the same time, however, high-level apprenticeship starts – often taken by older people – increased by 400%. Although a complex picture, partly due to the mix of four different apprenticeship levels, this is hardly the sign of a system that is firing on all cylinders.
With this kind of mixed performance, the government’s promise that it will fix the skills crisis soon is failing to convince many within industry.
“People are beginning to say: Look, this is just crazy, we can’t carry on like this,” says Iain Parker, a partner at consultancy Turner & Townsend alinea. “We need to deal with this inflationary point around people.”
What are T levels?
T levels are part of the government’s attempt to bring level 3 vocational qualifications up to the same standing as A levels. The hope is that, as a respected and valued qualification, the T level will provide a clear and flexible pathway that potentially provides access to work, apprenticeships or a degree.
Like A levels, T levels are studied over a two-year period. But, rather than taking three different subjects, like most A level students, those taking T levels will typically take just one course. Crucially, T levels also include 45 days of on-the-job experience in the workplace. No more than two different employers should be used.
For the construction industry, there are a range of T levels to look out for:
- Design, surveying and planning for construction
- Building services engineering for construction
- Onsite construction
- Maintenance, installation and repair for engineering and manufacturing
- Engineering, manufacturing, processing and control
Ian Evans, head of the School for Construction and the Built Environment at City of Westminster College (CWC) in London, is in the process of rolling out construction T levels.
So, what is driving the adoption of T levels? Primarily it seems to be funding.
As part of the transition to T levels, the government announced that it was cutting funding for BTECs, an existing vocational qualification. But, following the patchy roll-out of the first wave of T levels, the government announced a stay of execution for a raft of BTECs.
Still, despite the blip, Evans says that the withdrawal of funding for BTECs is “a fundamental driver” behind education providers making this shift, “irrespective of the merits of T levels”.
The process of introducing the new qualifications also requires training for the educators. According to Evans, the Education and Training Foundation has been given significant funding “to roll out training to colleges in the UK over the next couple of years”.
The intention is also to bring industry and education together. Employers played a part in the development of the qualifications and will be critical in terms of keeping the qualifications up to date, and also providing work placements.
“Employer engagement is more important than ever before,” says Evans. “We need them all to engage T level providers and offer industry placements.”
But putting in place enough placements is already proving an issue. ”We think industry placement is going to be one of the biggest challenges, given T levels will replace all other level 3 qualifications over the next couple of years.”
A lot of colleges are having to put a lot of effort into industry engagement to get placements lined up, and Evans says this is currently the “main concern across all subjects”, before adding that the further education sector “really does need some help”.
But Evans remains optimistic overall. “I think there could be great value in T levels,” he says. With the “support and engagement of industry”, Evans believes T levels “should be a conduit to the future workplace” that helps the UK “to plug all those skills gaps we have”.
With a significant focus on workplace learning, and the potential to go straight into a job, an apprenticeship or a degree after college, Evans acknowledges that education providers will “have to develop students’ employability skills very quickly”.
We need to make employers more aware of T levels and how they can support them
He wants to see “industry and higher education (HE) engaged right from the start” to help guide young people through the options. “A student interested in architecture will have engagement with architecture and an HE mentor,” he says.
His ideal for how the new system will work envisages that employers see the placement programme as a means to spot future talent. Once the student is in the workplace, Evans wants to see “the employer already working with the HE provider on the appropriate apprenticeship course. That’s my ideal.”
But the shift from a full-time education model to one that includes work placements is going to place huge demands on colleges and industry. As Evans points out, with 40 students on a course, “you start to see you have severe constraints on employers … Employer engagement within T levels surpasses anything in any other qualification up to this point.”
Part of the solution he believes is increasing industry’s awareness of its obligations and the opportunities. “We need to make employers more aware of T levels and how they can support them,” he says.
For the firms themselves, Evans believes T levels could provide a brilliant opportunity to “spot future workplace talent”.
One of the other issues for T levels so far has been some universities’ refusal to accept them as equivalent to A levels. Evans argues that it is “absolutely paramount that universities back T levels.
“That issue has not really been resolved,” he acknowledges, “but bear in mind that there were universities that never really accepted BTECs.”
BTECs were never fully accepted, especially by elite Russell Group universities. Cambridge has already set out where it stands in terms of engineering, with a statement on its website stating: “T levels are not considered appropriate preparation for the Cambridge engineering degree and are therefore not accepted for entry.”
Evans also wants to make the HE sector more “aware of T levels” and “how they could feed into their degree apprenticeship pipeline”. He acknowledges that engineering courses in particular “would quite like an A level maths on the side”.
“In terms of the higher-ranking universities, I imagine that T levels will be regarded as similar to BTECs,” he says. The reality appears to be that T levels are not currently a great choice if you want to pursue a degree at a top university in the UK.
Central European standards have been held up as superior to ours for decades
But Evans sees potential elsewhere. “I do see a lot of the T level grads taking the apprenticeship degree route.”
The lack of Russell Group recognition is perhaps not so much of an issue so long as students are properly briefed on their options. After all, T levels are also about providing a gateway to work, not just academic success.
Evans sees the way in which industry has been invoved in the curriculum design as putting a lot of emphasis on “behaviours, aligned with specific jobs and roles”. The idea is that young people are going to finish this course with the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. “Alignment with apprenticeship standard is central to that,” he says.
“Central European standards have been held up as superior to ours for decades,” says Evans. He believes that the T levels, alongside apprenticeships, mean that the UK is finally becoming “more aligned with German models”.
For Evans, the government and all those backing T levels, part of the point is that they are “marketed as a real alternative to A levels and not just for those who did not do as well at GCSE”. But, as he points out, “at the moment, that isn’t being effectively communicated”.
Emily Pallot is director at Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt (ACG), an architectural practice with offices in Basingstoke and Fitzrovia, central London.
Pallot and ACG have had a longstanding interest in architectural education and engaging young people with the built environment. She teaches the “industry and practice” module on the University of Reading’s architecture course, and ACG is already closely involved in “interfacing with primary schools, secondary schools and beyond” on learning and skills.
For Pallot, a key message for her students at Reading is that studying architecture “is not just about drawing” but also about options for work that do not just involve going into conventional practice. She sees the T level course as giving young people a better insight into architecture and construction, so they can make informed decisions about their future career paths.
ACG has been working with Havant and South Downs College (HSDC) in Hampshire on the roll-out of the design, surveying and planning T level.
Pallot says that their first year T level students come into the office for perhaps just three or four days during the year. This gives them an introduction to “BIM, marketing, working on site, and journalling” and is coupled with an opportunity to reflect on this time and what they have learnt.
For anyone starting out in their career I’m not sure remote working works
In their second year, the students come into the office for around 40 days in total. The workplace experience is spread out over several weeks, with three days at work and two days in college per week for classroom learning and reflection.
Pallot acknowledges that the experience of working as a workplace partner for T levels has brought challenges for ACG. The college asked one of the students to work for ACG remotely for one day a week, which she believes was probably not a success.
“For anyone starting out in their career I’m not sure remote working works,” says Pallot. “It was tricky. One day working from college for ACH – that really didn’t work.”
But Pallot believes these lessons are all part of the learning curve that colleges and firms are embarking on together with T levels. And she firmly believes the time in an office was “good exposure” for the students.
Something the college and the practice did not anticipate, says Pallot, was the students’ lack of prior exposure to a workplace. “They are not Part 1,” she notes, before pointing out that there is “a big difference in terms of managing them … some have never had a job before.”
She notes that there was a need to point out some basics about how an office works. “We had to explain that you don’t need to ask to go for lunch,” she says.
HSCD has found it “beneficial when its students have had workplace experience”, she believes. And for the students themselves there is a confidence-building factor to having worked on a range of real-world projects.
Companies who commit to this really need to be ready to take a high level of management
Pallot sees the need to keep T levels up to date as a potential challenge. “In terms of the skills people will need in the future, things are changing so quickly.”
Like Evans, she can also see an issue around finding enough placements. “Where does the responsibility sit for the recruitment of firms? I would flip it back onto industry,” she says. “Colleges are really struggling to find enough placements.
“There is a disconnect between how colleges are seeking out people to help. But also, I don’t think we as an industry are being clear enough about us being open to take students.”
In terms of the workplace experience for students and employers, T levels are clearly still a work in progress. “We really need to think about the kind of tasks we set. Companies who commit to this really need to be ready to take a high level of management,” says Pallot.
This means a “real-time commitment in terms of upskilling” for practice staff, so they can deliver for the T level students.
She does see potential benefits for employers. “What it did really help us with is that we left them in the care of our Part 1 assistant.” At ACH, an associate and a junior architectural member of staff were mentoring the T level student.
“Younger members of the team have to have a go at managing and be responsible for planning someone’s time,” she notes. “That helps them to become better at doing that for themselves.”
Can T levels become a fully coordinated national effort, with national and local government, industry and education all pulling together in the same direction? The intent seems to be there but, in a familiar story, industry and higher education seem insufficiently engaged or aware of what is required.
Clearly, a major effort to find work placements and change the culture in industry and higher education is required.
Another issue that has recently been highlighted by the mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, is that unlike Germany, where devolved regional governments have had huge autonomy to tailor education provision to meet local industry needs, UK education policy is almost entirely in the hands of Whitehall.
In a sign of the frustration felt by local government at the inflexibility of UK policy, Burnham has been speaking out about Manchester’s plans to defy the central government diktat on technical education by introducing its own Manchester baccalaureate (Mbacc) for 14 to 16-year-olds, as a vocational alternative to the English baccalaureate (Ebacc).
Highlighting Manchester’s need to maintain growth, Burnham said: “A risk to that growth is an education system not flexible enough to rise to the fast-changing skills requirements of potential investors.”
Centuries of fitful starts on vocational education, and deeply engrained attitudes that favour “academic” qualificaitons will be hard to overcome. But, as Neal Shasore of the London School of Architecture succintly puts it, giving young people the skills to succeed in the workplace is “not just about getting students on the conveyor belt. It’s about what we need – for our community and our planet.”
Properly delivered, T levels could help to achieve the long desired shift in UK attitudes to workplace skills and training. But whether the UK has the desire and drive to achieve that change is yet to be seen.