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Covid magnified the skills gap, but sped up possible solutions

The Covid-19 crisis exacerbated the existing skills gap in the building services sector, but also created new opportunities and accelerated potential solutions, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

The industry is braced for a wave of redundancies in the autumn, but the rapid adoption of online learning during the Covid-19 crisis has created a model that can help tackle the sector’s long-term skills challenge, the Association believes.

BESA President Neil Brackenridge said many employers were being forced to defer taking on new apprentices and were, instead, focusing on their existing intakes who missed out on several months training during the lockdown.

“We are prioritising our existing apprentices; getting them back into our businesses and focusing on developing them before we look to take on more recruits,” he told a webinar hosted by BESA.

He added that there would also be a lot of displaced workers after the end of the government’s furlough scheme, but that many of these could be redeployed and upskilled.

“Investment in skills is one of the first things to get cut during an economic downturn,” said BESA’s director of training and skills Helen Yeulet. “However, the Covid crisis has also created an opportunity for employers to take a fresh look at what we actually want our people to be doing and, therefore, what skills they will need.”

The crisis accelerated the demand for new skills as well as the upskilling of existing workforces to embrace modern ways of working, such as off-site manufacture, and to help deliver the government’s vision for a ‘green recovery’. A new generation of teachers will also have to be upskilled, according to Ms Yeulet.

“Building services is a very scattered sector that needs a wider and more varied range of skills than many others,” she told the BESA webinar. “This makes it relatively expensive and complicated for FE colleges to deliver our apprenticeships.

“However, a lot of learning moved online during the lockdown. We were already going that way, but the crisis speeded things up and created a new learning model. If we can deliver more of the theoretical elements remotely that will free up the colleges to focus on the practical training. It will also reduce volume of students attending in person at any one time to help colleges maintain social distancing.”

This ‘blended approach’ to training is the foundation of the new BESA Academy, which is launching in August to support employers and the FE sector with a wide range of targeted online courses.

“It should also help employers to engage more easily with the education sector especially as the new standard apprenticeships are being rolled out this summer. Many of these were developed by employers through BESA to produce a workforce directly suited to the industry’s needs,” said Ms Yeulet.

Jill Nicholls from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education told the BESA webinar that the crisis had also led to better collaboration between different government departments. It had produced “new money, new policies and new processes” for technical education as it was seen as “a key vehicle in helping the economic recovery”.

“It is also important that we support redundant apprentices and we are looking at ways to help them transfer their skills without having to start again from scratch,” she said.

Ms Nicholls said there were still some gaps in the new standard apprenticeships being rolled out for the building engineering sector and urged employers to come forward with ideas for apprenticeships that could help them develop the skilled workforces they need.

Phased
Chris Nicholls from the Association of Colleges added that the blended learning approach adopted by the BESA Academy would help to support the phased entrance of students back into their FE colleges in September. With more materials delivered online, they would be able to reduce the amount of time they spent physically in classrooms.

However, he told the BESA webinar that colleges had adopted online learning with “varying degrees of success” and cautioned that “IT poverty” could be a stumbling block.

“The move to online learning during the crisis had to be put in place in just a few days when normally it would have taken a couple of years to plan and implement,” he said. “A lot of learners are going to need more support with the kit they need to access the teaching.”

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