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Trainees cushioned from building slump

Rescue packages will protect apprentices from the downturn in the building industry.

The Construction Industry Training Board expects some employers to come under pressure to drop apprentices as they are forced to cut costs. But it insists the sector as a whole remains buoyant.

The board is carrying out a nationwide survey of companies to assess the impact of the weakening economy on construction training, in which colleges play a crucial role.

One rescue measure being considered is to put existing apprentices on "programme-led" training, which would see them going back to college to complete their off-the-job study before returning to complete their work placement at the end of the course. By deferring the on-the-job training in this way, companies would gain respite from the employment costs involved.

Mark Farrar, who takes over as chief executive of the board in September, said that, while house building had been hit by the credit crunch, falling prices and the threat of recession, public sector building was keeping the industry afloat.

This means construction training in colleges could be protected from the downturn if they are able to adapt to the new climate, he said.

"I would guess there will be minimal growth, but not a situation where we are going to be falling back rapidly. We're still buoyant in some sectors," he said.

These include large civil engineering projects such as the Olympics, the Crossrail scheme in London, hospital building and other planned Government work.

In some cases, apprentices could be transferred to sites where there is a skills shortage.

Another headache for the industry, but a potential lifesaver for colleges, is its rapidly retiring workforce. This will offset to an extent the drop in demand for apprenticeships caused by the economic downturn, Mr Farrar said.

While the board still receives a long-established training levy from large firms, the money only goes part of the way to paying the wages of apprentices in smaller firms.

The board still hopes the economy will see a slowdown rather than significant shrinkage.

Mr Farrar cited success stories in FE - including Leeds College of Building, which is predicting increased interest in its apprenticeships in the year ahead.

The new Apprenticeships Bill includes a proposal for a "matching service" that would link employers with trainees, and a national online service through which employers could advertise apprenticeships.

The latest figures reveal that 184,000 people started apprenticeships last year.

David Lammy, skills minister, said: "Apprenticeships have gone from strength to strength, and over the past decade we have more than doubled the number of young people and adults starting them."

No demolition of our ambition, page 29.

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