An initiative to promote training on social housing projects should show the industry how to shed its insecurities and secure its future
One of my roles is Chairman of the new sector skills body, ConstructionSkills – a partner of the Construction Industry Training Board, the Construction Industry Council and the Northern Ireland CITB. To reflect its significantly widened role, the CITB now calls itself CITB-ConstructionSkills.

But one of its prime responsibilities is still how to go about attracting, recruiting and placing apprentices.

Contractors are businesspeople. They need to weigh up the long-term benefits of training against an industry plagued by insecurity about the future and desperately searching for short-term work to generate cash flow and cover overheads.

I welcomed the launch last month of a partnership between CITB-ConstructionSkills and the Housing Forum, called Sustainable Training for Sustainable Communities. It encourages a partnering approach to training on social housing regeneration projects. Public sector housing clients will be offering five to 10-year contracts. In return, firms will train local people on the projects in the skills the industry needs.

Last year John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, announced the decent homes strategy, which stipulated that by 2010 all social housing had to meet a certain standard. Four hundred thousand social housing units are intended to be brought up to this standard by 2005. Additionally the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's approved development programme for the Housing Corporation, which is worth more than £1.2bn, expects 22,700 homes to be built in 2003/4. Funding and training the craftspeople for all this, especially when there is major building work in other public sectors, such as education and health, is a massive challenge.

CITB-ConstructionSkills research shows that housebuilding relies more than general construction on labour-only subcontracting – 43% of firms do so, compared with an average of 26% for construction as a whole, with even higher figures in the south of England and the London area. The research also shows that these subcontractors do very little training. We need to encourage housebuilders and their suppliers to commit to the future.

The research shows that these housebuilders’ subcontractors do very little training

As a primary requirement, the parties need to create a stable work environment to take on apprentices and train them on local contracts. The sustainable training scheme tackles this. It will focus on a joint approach to training led by the client, involving the main contractor, a local college and subcontractors working on a refurbishment project. It could also involve one or more major contractors working with their subcontractors to recruit and train local people, including non-traditional entrants.

CITB-CS will be committing staff resources, industry expertise and local knowledge to ensure that projects get the help and advice they need. Wherever possible, grant support will be provided for the participating projects to help fund the apprentice training. The total pot available to employers was increased 15% this year, to £86.5m. The grant available to fund apprentice training has risen from £6000 to £8400 a trainee. More than £41.9m of the £86.5m will be available for training new recruits.

This support package and the sustainable training framework has attracted widespread interest from the housing sector. By the time of the launch, the partnership already had 16 long-term inner-city refurbishment schemes signed up, ranging from medium-sized projects worth £21m for 1600 units to £240m works on 20,000 homes.

Some of the organisations that have signed up, such as Whitefriars Housing in Coventry or Pennine 2000 in Halifax, have been running for more than 18 months and have integrated a training policy into their procurement strategy. By recruiting from the local area they also have a higher proportion of ethnic minority recruits than is seen nationally, which is an important aim for the Sustainable Training initiative. It builds on CITB-CS' work to recruit more women and ethnic minority people through the programme known as Step Into Construction.