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Why we need a change of attitude towards vocational careers

February 02, 2022

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Tradespeople are essential. Each day a quiet army of plumbers, electricians and builders go about their business in a way that generates few headlines. However, looking deeper into the stories that have dominated the press in recent months, it becomes clear that we need to give the trade sector more credit and support than it’s been shown in the past.

In the past 18 months, the pandemic has also underlined the ways in which tradespeople are essential to our everyday lives. They are, after all, the people who keep our lights on and the water running. Because of this, when the UK went into lockdown tradespeople were quickly one of the few professions labelled key workers and were able to continue to carry out their day-to-day work, while understandably adhering to rules on social distancing and PPE.

Skills shortage

Tradespeople’s hard work during COVID-19 has accelerated the slow dawning realisation of just how integral tradespeople are to some of the UK’s most strategic sectors. For example, this has been bubbling away in the construction industry for some time. Overlooking vocational training in education has led to a skills shortage. This has resulted in long delays to building and infrastructure projects, not to mention prohibiting the UK from reaching annual housing targets. What’s more, this skills shortage is only getting worse and soon other industries such as utilities will begin to see shortages in its workforce due to a lack of skilled professionals coming through the pipeline.

Sporadically, we have seen governments profess support for vocational skills. However, this is usually accompanied by apprenticeship drives and initiatives that nearly always result in missed targets.(1) Even recent proposals that promise support to help grow jobs needed for the green economy have been noted as needing to be “fleshed out”.(2) What we need now is more than empty words and shallow policies. And, given the recent attention, it is the perfect time to re-examine our attitude towards vocational training.

Attitude towards vocational training

For too long, the conventional opinion has been that ‘successful’ students go onto university after school. And while this is the correct choice for a huge number of young people, many will have aspirations and inclinations in the sphere of vocational training. We desperately need a status quo that offers this cohort the same level of support and respect as those proceeding to academic higher education.

This starts with ending the perception that learning a trade will lead to inferior financial reward. Trainee tradespeople typically earn on par with newly qualified graduates, and this is usually achieved without the fees that typically arise from studying degrees. Moreover, a trade can be practiced with flexibility way and has an entrepreneurial paradigm that encourages people to start their own businesses.

This will require a difficult conversation about how the current landscape is not only harming the UK’s infrastructure, but also failing the people who work within the industry. We need to be looking at more targeted funding options and a change to apprenticeship schemes, so they offer realistic support to help people through training in order to fill the skills gap. We cannot allow ourselves to get into a situation where we do not have enough trades people to cover the most basic needs like heating and running water due to increasing callout wait times.

The demand is certainly out there. We have seen applications soar by 29% during the pandemic, as people realise that trades, such as plumbing and electrics, can offer well-paid, reliable careers even in times of uncertainty. We now just need the support from the government that the industry deserves. With a little help, we can challenge misplaced attitudes towards vocational learning and equip the UK with the next generation of skilled tradespeople.


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