Apprentice Scheme Gives Youngsters Skills for the Future

Europe’s largest infrastructure project, in London, is helping unemployed young people from black and minority ethnic communities to get work in the construction industry.

On average, just 5 per cent of construction industry workers in the UK are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (BME), compared with a representation among the population of around 13%. But among the apprentices working on Europe’s largest infrastructure project, the figure is 39 per cent.

One of them is 21-year-old Sam Agyeman. Twenty-five metres underground, in a central London tunnel that will one day house platforms full of commuters, he is explaining the business of spray concrete lining. He points out the elephant trunk-like lines supplying air, concrete and accelerator, the huge orange nozzle from which the stuff splatters, and the structures that come out “like a Transformer” to direct it to the right place. It is all controlled with a hand-held console.

Agyeman, from Hackney in east London, is an apprentice tunneller onCrossrail, which is digging 42km of train tunnels to improve transport links across London and the south-east. Most of the 283 apprentices are actually employed by the £14.8bn project’s contractors. And 44 per cent of them, like Agyeman, were not in work, compared with the UK-wide average among apprentices of just 23 per cent – as more than two-thirds of apprentices are internal recruits.

Crossrail says the higher percentage is the result of a concentrated strategy to offer opportunities to those living locally and to get young people into the tunnelling industry – in doing so revitalising a workforce that is both ageing and traditionally a rather closed shop, with word-of-mouth and informal contacts key to securing a job.

“There has been a tendency for it to be a closed book, [with workers] normally Irish or from a northern mining town,” says Steve Parker, the site manager at Farringdon. “But we’re trying to break that trend and get some new blood in.”

Would-be contractors were told about the commitment to opening up the industry, explains Crossrail’s director of talent and resources, Valerie Todd. “They all knew that if they were going to bid for our work they were going to have to support us in achieving these goals.”

All new jobs have to be advertised externally and through Jobcentre Plus 48 hours before general advertising, and Crossrail works with all the London boroughs and some councils outside London, whose job brokerage services prepare the candidates Todd describes as “furthest from the labour market”.

“We don’t make any assumptions about how many GCSEs people have or about why they may be where they are. If you’ve got a criminal background, that’s fine … if you’ve paid your debt to society and you’re ready to come back into work, that past is the past,” she says.

Crossrail has also set up a Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (Tuca), part-funded by the government’s Skills Funding Agency. Potential employees can train for a “tunnel safety card”, while other training includes sprayed concrete lining and working in a confined space. Agyeman, who started his apprenticeship in November 2012, was sent to a Tuca open day by his local jobcentre. He had wanted to study psychology at college but didn’t get the grades, so accepted a place on a sport science course instead. It wasn’t for him, and he dropped out aged 18, spending eight months unemployed.

Source: The Guardian UK

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