CONSTRUCTION firms in the East of England are being urged to take on and train apprentices to help survive the economic downturn – and the move could improve their chances of winning public sector contracts as well as attracting financial support. Constru

CONSTRUCTION firms in the East of England are being urged to take on and train apprentices to help survive the economic downturn - and the move could improve their chances of winning public sector contracts as well as attracting financial support.

ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council for the industry, is advising employers to continue to take on apprentices in order to remain competitive and be in the strongest possible position when the upturn begins.

Even though apprentice applications are down this year on recent years, thousands more employers in England are still needed to match the demand for apprenticeship places, with 6,845 applications received so far and only 1,880 employer vacancies offered.

But 740 employers and apprentices have been matched to date, which is the same number as this time in 2008, ConstructionSkills says. In the East of England 425 applications have been received to date with only 93 employer vacancies offered, but with 37 employers and apprentices having been matched to date. A total of 5,800 young people in England started an apprenticeship last year with ConstructionSkills.

With more and more construction firms bidding for public sector work - which is forecast to remain stable over the next few years relative to other sectors - those who employ apprentices could have a major advantage. The Office of Government Commerce's (OGC) new guidelines for public sector procurement, published in April, state that contractors who can demonstrate a commitment to skills and training may be the preferred choice to take on work as part of the Government's £7billion annual spend. Major contactors, in turn, will be looking to their supply-chain partners to help meet these requirements.

As well as putting firms in a good position to win public sector contracts, apprentices and other trainees can have immediate and low-cost benefits for firms, ConstructionSkills said. Apprentices taken on now will be trained in time for the predicted upturn in demand for construction services by 2011, it points out.

ConstructionSkills apprenticeships manager for the East of England, Georgina Bill, said: "Taking on an apprentice may feel like the last thing on your mind at the moment. However, when times are tough, competition for contracts is even tougher. That's when a well-trained, extra pair of hands could make a real difference to your chances.

"By offering a flexible resource that can help your business grow, an apprentice could be the best investment your business ever makes. It is vital that during these tough economic times valuable skills are not lost.

INFORMATION: ConstructionSkills financially supports employers that take on apprentices with up to £9,820 in CITB-ConstructionSkills Grant. In addition, a network of trained advisors provides ongoing mentoring and support. More on www.cskills.org/apprenticeships