THE BLOG

The Modern Apprentice - A New Business Opportunity

05/03/2014 12:01 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 10:59 BST

As a professional consultancy advising and working with developers, contractors and architects we are directly impacted by skills and resource shortages within the environmental, construction and engineering sectors.

Although we don't have statistics for all the areas we work, we know that engineering companies are expected to have 2.74 million job openings from 2010 - 2020, 1.86 million of which will need technical engineering skills. Of these, approximately 87,000 per year will require people with degree qualifications. Currently the UK produces only 46,000 engineering graduates each year. So you start to get a picture of the problems we as a wider industry face, once you add in all the associated lines of work it's far bigger but much less talked about.

There is also projected demand for around 69,000 people qualified at advanced apprenticeship or equivalent level each year. Yet only around 27,000 UK apprentices a year currently qualify at the appropriate level.

Compounding this is the fact that apprenticeships in our industry have fallen by 33 percent over the last three years. Faced with the reality of this skills shortage, it is extremely important for companies like WSP, who provide advice and consultation to companies facing some of these issues and are facing them ourselves, to be doing everything we can to ensure we are 'growing our own' talent and investing in our future leaders and technical intellect.

Which is why apprenticeships form a key part of our vision and strategy. Recruiting apprentices and developing skills not only supports WSP's business success, but ensures that we are contributing to the development of professionals in our industry for future generations.

We took on 21 apprentices in the UK last year, a 25% increase on the 2012, bringing the total number of technical apprentices to 34. We are pledging to take on at least twenty more apprenticeships this summer.

There's also a major issue of diversity within the industries we operate, with women representing only 12% of the whole construction industry in the UK, the worst proportion of any industry surveyed according to ONS data. Women constitute closer to one in three technical staff at WSP, but still, we all need to do more. Apprenticeships are another route to attracting a wide range of talented people, and importantly, a way of engaging with young people who may not readily think of technical disciplines like transport planning as a likely career.

From a purely commercial perspective, the business case for apprenticeships stacks up. We are able to invest in bright young people, train them up and benefit from their experience as they provide vital support for our existing teams, and over time, the specialist expertise we require on our key projects. As we see the economy keeps picking up, it's those businesses who are geared up to deal with the upturn - particularly in our core sectors such as property, rail, and planning where growth will be driven by government support for housing and infrastructure - that will come out on top.

Despite all these good reasons to invest in apprenticeships there is still some reticence apparent in our industry, evidenced by the falling numbers. We need to address this. I would say to those firms who are yet to get on board, you're missing out on some great opportunities to grow your own leaders. Some of our most senior staff and valuable team members came through the apprenticeships route, including our Head of Building Services in London, Nick Offer, who began his career as an apprentice in 1981 and gone on to work on prestigious projects such as the Shard. We've got many examples like this and when I look at our current apprentices and their enthusiasm, tenacity and eagerness to learn, I know we will have many more.

Mark Naysmith, UK MD, WSP