Seddon apprentices meet Salford mayor Paul Dennett at a development of 51 new council homes in Clifton Green. Credit: Seddon
Greater Manchester’s building boom has continued despite the Covid crisis.
More than 12,000 properties have been under construction in Manchester every year since 2018 with a record number completed in the city in 2020, according to Deloitte’s latest crane survey which was published last year.
Salford has also seen a rise in residential developments being built recently with nearly 3,200 new dwellings estimated to be finished this financial year.
And all over the city-region, councils have started building houses themselves.
Around 85,000 people in the Greater Manchester area work in construction, according to a report published by mayor Andy Burnham’s office last week.
But there’s a bottleneck when it comes to new talent entering the industry – and with training taking up to five years, it will take a while to fix the skills gap.
Despite an abundance of courses relating to the construction sector, there are not enough routes into the industry itself, according to one local contractor.
Bolton-based construction company Seddon took on 17 new apprentices in September after receiving more than 350 applications for the trainee roles.
‘Uni really didn’t appeal to me at all’
Owen Mills finished his A-Levels in Bolton last summer.
The 18-year-old signed up for a quantity surveying apprenticeship at Seddon after a few weeks of work experience at the firm headquartered in Farnworth.
“I didn’t want to go into full-time education because I really didn’t think I’d enjoy it,” he said.
“Before coming here I had no idea what I wanted to do. But after work experience, I couldn’t think of anything that I’d want to do other than this.
“All of my friends have just gone straight to uni in Manchester, but that really didn’t appeal to me at all.”
Owen will spend two years at Seddon as part of his apprenticeship before going to university for his third year to complete a degree qualification.
‘It was very competitive during the pandemic’
Lucy Kearney, aged 20, spent three years at Bolton College studying business before joining Seddon as an apprentice after her friends recommended applying.
Like Owen, Lucy’s time as an apprentice at Seddon will last two years – and, if all goes well, they are both set to secure jobs at the end of the programme.
Lucy wanted to do something physical and discovered a love for painting in the lockdown when she redecorated her grandma’s house where she was living.
“I didn’t really know what to do,” she said. “I wanted a job and I didn’t know how to get one.
“It was very competitive during the pandemic because there was loads of demand for jobs, but not a lot of people were offering.”
What has Seddon said about taking on apprentices?
The construction company usually employs around 10 to 12 apprentices a year – but with more work coming through, Seddon is keen to take more people on.
Director of business services Nicola Hodkinson says she is frustrated with the lack of investment by the industry to attract new talent into the workforce.
However, she says the issue is that these programmes can take five years to complete so construction companies need a long pipeline of work to commit.
Colleges offer construction courses, but around 50% fail to find a job in the industry afterwards, Nicola claims, because companies will not take them on.
“It’s very, very tricky and I have every sympathy for lots and lots of kids out there who want to go into construction,” she said.
“I think some of the difficulty is employers being able to commit long term.
“For us, it’s much better to go down the traditional apprenticeship route than it is to go for university or college full time,” she added. “But you need industry and the education system to partner more and get close with each other.”
What is the current situation in Greater Manchester with house-building?
Over the last few years, estimates of how many homes Greater Manchester needs over the next two decades have fluctuated around the 200,000 mark.
In May 2021, Andy Burnham committed to building 30,000 net-zero carbon homes for social rent by 2038 as part of his total in his election manifesto.
And the metro mayor has also set a target to retrofit all buildings in Greater Manchester with environmentally-friendly heating systems by the same year.
But an action plan published by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority on the target to retrofit an average of 61,000 buildings per year over the next three years highlights some serious challenges in the construction industry.
An ageing workforce with fewer young people attracted to the industry and pre-existing skills shortages are key concerns raised in the GMCA report.
Nicola says Seddon has been trying new ways of attracting apprentices.
In the past, the company would cast its net wide and get 1,000 applications – but now it is targeting areas around Greater Manchester where there is work.
There were two open days which the firm used to find the new recruits, focusing not on their GCSE or A Level grades, but on their ‘attitude’.
“We’re more about your attitude than what’s on your CV,” she said.
“If somebody’s keen and they really want to learn and they put the work in, then we can skill anybody.
“If they’ve not got the right attitude, then it’s not going to work.”
The company also found places for four apprentices in their supply chain.
It comes as councils pay more attention to the ‘social value’ of contracts as part of the procurement process – and this includes creating apprenticeships.
Local authorities which are building more council housing themselves often require companies to hire local labour as a condition of their contracts too.
In September, new Seddon apprentices met Salford mayor Paul Dennett, at a development of 51 new homes commissioned by the council on Clifton Green.
The young people were joined by representatives from Seddon to celebrate the company’s commitment to providing apprenticeships in the city-region.
But Nicola says that Seddon stands out because it already hires apprentices.
“We do it anyway because it’s the only way that we can grow our own and be sustainable,” she said.
“And we’re choosing subcontractors that have the same values as us.”
The next window of recruitment for Seddon apprenticeships is this spring.