Features - Business

Making effective use of graduates and apprentices

The construction industry has a long tradition of bringing in entry-level workers at both apprenticeship and graduate level. However, are such workers currently offering employers the skills that they need? Tristram Hooley, Institute of Student Employers’ chief research officer, reports on recent research to provide some insights on current trends in the sector.

At the Institute of Student Employers we regularly survey our members to find out who they are recruiting and what issues they are having with the new staff that they are hiring.

Recruitment is up

In our mid-season pulse survey, conducted in January, we found that employers were intending to recruit 18% more graduates this year than they did last year. They also reported that the apprenticeship levy was encouraging them to focus on apprenticeships causing numbers to soar by 47%. In the construction sector the increase in both types of hire was similar with employers predicting 24% more graduates and 21% more apprentices. This may be because other sectors are running to catch up on apprenticeships. ISE members in the built environment spent an average of 45% of their levy. This is higher than all members who spent an average of 33% and the national average of all employers, which is closer to 14%.

Construction sector firms proved effective at filling all of their posts last year. One area of concern was the fact that only 84% of graduates and 88% of apprentices accepted job offers and the sector seems to suffer from higher than average levels of reneges (disruptive last minute drop outs by candidates).

Looking forward, employers in the construction sector were slightly more concerned than average that Brexit might impact on the level of their recruitment. Most employers in the sector were either concerned about finding the right candidates after Brexit or unsure as to what the impact would be. They expected that Brexit might impact on the recruitment of both entry-level hires and experienced hires.


The ISE Development Survey 2019 provides us with further insights as to how this recruitment actually works out when the candidates start. Unsurprisingly, employers in the construction sector found graduates to be more skilled than apprentices when they started. Graduates were seen as being particularly strong in numeracy, IT and digital skills, data handling, writing, teamwork and problem solving. They outperformed apprentices most strongly in terms of knowing how to dress and present themselves in the workplace, having good presentation skills and being able to take responsibility. However, graduates also had weaknesses and employers reported they were often weak in business appropriate communication, commercial awareness, emotional intelligence, managing up and self-awareness.

Construction employers also viewed apprentices as having strengths in teamwork, numeracy, IT and digital skills, writing and problem solving and weaknesses in business appropriate communication, commercial awareness, emotional intelligence, managing up, self-awareness and dealing with conflict. While there are a number of areas where graduates out perform them, there are also a lot of areas where employers don’t report any major differences between the two types of hires e.g. their ability to stay positive, listen, use Excel and time management.

The fact that graduates are more skilled at the point of entry needs to be balanced against the advantages that apprentices bring. Employers are typically paying graduates a lot more as a starting salary (almost double in some cases). Furthermore, our data shows that apprentices are typically more loyal with employers reporting that 74% of apprentices are still employed by their firm five years after they are hired, while only 60% of graduates stay.


Our development survey also provides some good insights into the approaches that employers are using to develop the skills and capabilities of entry-level hires. Construction employers are most commonly training both graduates and apprentices in business appropriate communication, interpersonal skills, presentation skills, commercial awareness and job-specific technical skills.

The desired outcomes of development for both groups of hires are remarkably similar. But there are some differences in how the training is organised. Employers make extensive use of classroom-based training, online learning, mentoring and volunteering for both groups. However, they are far more likely to offer apprentices dedicated self-study time and encourage them to form peer support groups. There is agreement amongst construction employers that classroom learning is an essential part of the development mix with other approaches that are identified as having an impact including encouraging peer-learning support, registration for external qualifications and rotation between different business functions.

A challenging future

Our data suggests that the construction industry is currently investing in people. This is both in terms of a growth in recruitment numbers and in terms of spending on the development of entry-level hires. While there are several concerns about the skills of entry-level hires, firms are taking proactive action to train and develop them in response to this.

If there is a recession, it is likely that such investment in people will decline somewhat. But, the evidence from previous recessions suggest that those firms that emerge most effectively from downturns take a long-term view and continue to ensure that they have sufficient skills and people at all levels in their organisation.

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