ConstructionSkills’ diploma is already proving a success with pupils. If employers continue to back it, it will make a huge difference to our training effort, says Sir Michael Latham

This is the last article I will write as chairman of CITB-ConstructionSkills as I’m retiring from the position on 31 March. I’ve served as chairman for eight years and that is long enough; even the president of the US only gets eight years! When John Healey, who was the skills minister at the time, appointed me in January 2002, he said the position was mine for no more than five years; then after only two years, the department said they wanted to extend it by five years. I decided on three, but only with the explicit agreement of the federation chief executives. So I want to write today about the diploma in construction and the built environment, which only commenced in 2008, but is already making great strides.

This qualification is showing young people what the work process is really like. It also helps to raise awareness of the many career opportunities available, while combining practical and academic learning, as it unites college and on-site experience, and it will open up the industry to a more diverse pool of young people.

It is not only about the construction process itself. It is also about design, and about manufacturing and the maintenance of the product.

The diploma is available at three levels and is being delivered by schools and colleges throughout England, alongside GCSEs and A levels. Because it is being taught by teachers, lecturers and workplace professionals, students learn directly from experienced people who understand what the next generation needs to know. Learners gain a relevant preparation for a career, or apprenticeship if they choose that path, or else future study at a further or higher education level.

The diploma has been devised by five sector skills councils and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board, with the government, training providers and business all heavily involved. Vocational qualifications must be heavily influenced by the industry. Often, it can feel that our industry is divided into silos – whether as architect, engineer, construction manager, QS, main contractor or specialist contractor. That is not the way to produce fine buildings or great infrastructure. The whole team needs to work together as one unit, and share the industry’s successes together, and this is where the diploma’s overarching curriculum will help.

The hard work and success of the inaugural year was rewarded recently with the news that uptake figures for 2009/10 had doubled on the previous year. For the 2010 academic year there will be 3,291 entrants. The figure for 2009 was about 1,700. Iain Wright, the schools minister, has welcomed the increase in entrants, and Nick Gooderson, head of standards and qualifications at ConstructionSkills, has stressed that this is an early stage of the qualification, and it will continue to need the active support of schools, colleges and, in particular, employers.

The rationale behind the diploma is simple. It is intended to help young people gain a vocational qualification. There are hundreds of career opportunities arising from the diploma. They include direct construction tasks such as demolition, steeplejacking or building services engineering, but they also involve architects, civil engineers, town planners, glass makers, estate agents and recycling officers. The diploma develops the skills that employers are looking for, such as how to think creatively, how to solve problems and how to communicate.

Learners are actively encouraged to look at how they can work independently, but also as part of a team, and to grasp health and safety issues.

The diploma also imparts important information on how “green” building methods can be achieved, and ensures that sustainable building is a core part of all the projects of an individual student. This is vital because most firms in the construction sector employ fewer than 10 people and they may not know what the law requires for sustainable buildings – and neither do the very small clients for whom they are working.

Another vital part of the process, and one required by law, is corporate social responsibility (CSR). It is increasingly important in business, and is influencing how firms conduct their work. This is a difficult competitive period for the industry, and has been for two years, with no sign of any let up. CSR can show what a firm is doing for the community as well as its workforce.

Original print headline - The triumph of diplomacy