WJ continue to give young people a sustainable future, despite new challenges and disappointments on training funding.
In my many roles as WJ Group Sustainability Director, Chairman of the Road Safety Markings Association (RSMA), Chairman of NHSS 7 Advisory Committee, and my Group responsibilities to liaise with the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), it may be understandable if I express some dismay at the present situation regarding apprenticeship and training funding.
The introduction of Apprenticeship Levy and Trailblazer standards has resulted in the loss of the Road Marking Apprenticeship Scheme as it does not meet the IFA criteria for funding. The replacement is a Specialist Applied Skills Programme with some funding through CITB. However, with recent CITB skills training reform, the funding for this programme has fallen as well, resulting in a double blow for our sector. We now have little opportunity to achieve an appropriate return on any of our Levy contributions.
Nevertheless, our operational pressures increase and WJ as a national contractor delivering major schemes for Highways England, Transport Scotland and local authorities, are expected, quite rightly, to satisfy mandatory training requirements to allow access to sites and complete works safely.
To meet the volume of training expected, WJ has established a training academy delivering approved and accredited training courses for LGV Drivers, Fire and Environmental Awareness, Safe Vehicle Operations, Emergency First Aid for Drivers, Safe Urban Driving, Safe and Fuel Efficient Driving, Fork Lift Operational Safety, Traffic Management etc. This extended training supports the core skills learnt under the previous apprenticeship scheme and has been established to ensure apprentices are fully competent to carry out tasks safely.
WJ seek funding clarity from CITB for vital training needs
WJ are seeking clarity from the CITB, in respect of various training elements that should attract funding, but many have not been included, so far. For example, we cannot understand why funding for first aid training has been withdrawn, when our operatives are handling 200°C thermoplastic road marking materials on the highway every day. We continue to deliver first aid training, along with all other responsible employers, but without funding some companies may not feel able to continue. First aid training is a valuable life skill and there are countless examples of prompt actions by first aiders saving lives; why change that?
In the meantime, these issues and uncertainties are having significant impact on the number of apprenticeships that the sector can fund.
Government commendably voice their commitment to create more apprenticeships in a drive to give young people a real opportunity to get on in life. However, since introducing the new apprenticeship levy only £108mil of the £2bn raised has been claimed and, as one sector in highway maintenance, we feel overlooked and frustrated. Road marking companies who are required to pay levy, have very little if any opportunity to achieve a return. Clients have a responsibility to encourage apprenticeships under The Social Value Act and had we not lost our Road Marking
Apprenticeship Scheme we would be able to contribute, but now sadly that opportunity has been lost.
For many businesses the new levy may be viewed as a tax, especially for those that do not or indeed cannot take on many apprentices, but then again it could be a failure of the legislation to understand our industry. Hopefully, with collaboration and support, the concerns for apprenticeships and skills training, will be taken on board to ensure funding criteria is better aligned with industry needs and at least be part of a government improvement objective.
Funding aside, and not to complicate the main subject with views on the state of our local road infrastructure, I will focus on the unprecedented investment in the
strategic road network and our efforts, within the road marking sector, to attract and develop the skills desperately needed.
Over the years, stereotypes surrounding the construction industry have grown with the idea that it is solely a place for men performing hard laborious manual jobs, with little scope for highly skilled specialists. Therefore, the road markings sector may seem an unlikely place for students to look for apprenticeships in their search for new and exciting careers.
However, WJ have been proactively working to change that thinking by providing awareness of varying career development opportunities for young men and women within our sector. We initiated a programme to develop close relationships with schools, sixth form colleges and universities in communities across the UK. The aim has been to foster an awareness and understanding of the different and exciting types of careers and opportunities that WJ, the road marking sector and the highways industry generally can offer young people.
Elevating the practical with IHE professional qualifications
In addition, our collaboration with the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE) also creates a further career development path for all WJ’s young talent to gain professional qualifications under a scheme designed to elevate the practical.
Further to this, with autonomous vehicles becoming an ever-closer reality, the highways and road markings industry can now provide opportunities which are fundamental to the development of ground breaking technology and systems to enable the great leap forward to driverless transport. Achieving this, will require the highways industry to establish close collaboration with vehicle manufacturers, technologists, industry associations and highways authorities as well as many other stakeholders. Coupled with existing ambitions to enhance road safety, improve the environment and increase efficiency, the highways sector now offers many exciting opportunities in the development of unique and innovative solutions.
In fact, with the UK having one of safest road networks in the world, despite being one of the busiest, we have an exceptional chance to export new products, services and expertise around the globe, if we seize the initiative.