The industry is coming to realise that, by the end of next year, every site worker will have to be trained. Just don't leave the training to your competitors
In the early 1930s, a young man attended his first meeting of the north-west regional association of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. Forty-five minutes was taken up by one builder accusing another of "having pinched his apprentice". This story was told to me in the 1960s by the now not-so-young man, but it's a familiar tale. Do you recognise this reason so regularly given by builders to explain why they "cannot afford to train youngsters"?

  • Fact: 76% of construction firms told the Construction Industry Training Board last year that they were experiencing difficulties in recruiting skilled labour.

  • Fact: at the end of 2001, 61,916 firms were registered as construction employers and were paying the statutory levy to the CITB, which is requested by the industry and requires parliamentary approval each year. The total levy collected was £80.2m.

  • Fact: in 2001, 15,653 firms were paid a grant by the CITB because they had engaged in training or prepared a training plan. The total grants, allowances and college fees paid were £78.2m.

  • Fact: in 2001, 3700 firms that were too small to pay any levy because their payroll was less than the statutory £61,000 a year received £17m in grants, allowances and college fees. Why? Simple. They trained, while thousands of other firms, many of them much bigger, did not. Those tiny firms did not leave it to someone else, and they did not worry about a competitor pinching their apprentice.

  • Fact: in 2001, the CITB handed out an additional £51m in benefit back to the industry, whether through recruitment drives, National Construction Week, safety training courses, raising the image of the industry or many other forms of outreach. The calculation is that, for every £1 the industry paid in the CITB levy, it received back £1.61 in grants or other forms of benefit.

    A trained workforce is no longer an optional extra or something we can’t afford. Major clients demand it

  • Fact: the total staff of the CITB, which turned over £135m in 2001, was 1112. My own company, Willmott Dixon, one of the smaller members of the Major Contractors Group, employs 1239. So a statutory body that funds most of the industry's training in an industry that employs more than 1.5 million people has fewer staff than just one of the top 20 companies in that industry.

    The industry has tended to leave training to someone else, but a new factor has now emerged. The industry was shocked by its appalling safety record in 2000, and was rightly reprimanded by the deputy prime minister at the safety summit in February last year. John Prescott made it clear that if the industry did not put its house in order very quickly, he would introduce new laws to do it for them.

    The MCG responded by undertaking that all of their site operatives would be fully qualified by the end of 2003. Since few major contractors employ much operative labour, that required their subcontractors to ensure that their workforce was up to scratch.

    A method was available – the Construction Skills Certificate Scheme. Once it became clear, in early 2002, that the MCG was serious about its qualification pledge, the registration staff were swamped by the demand for certificates. The CITB has also rapidly accelerated its Onsite Assessment and Training Programme to deliver certification to adult employees who have skills but do not have qualifications such as NVQ/SVQ3.

    A trained workforce is no longer an optional extra or something we cannot afford. Major clients are increasingly demanding it. We will all need to train and qualify for it. CITB grants exist to help us do so. And if we are worried about someone pinching our apprentice, we have a simple remedy – make sure that our companies and our sites are so driven by respect for people that the apprentice will wish to stay with us, rise through the company and perhaps end up running it.