The UK construction sector is in many respects less flexible, less efficient and less innovative than in those countries where sustainable training and employment practices have continued to be supported, says the ECA’s Andrew Eldred

Andrew Eldred BW 2018

In July 2018, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) published its 2018 Skills Strategy and Action Plan (SSAP), which recognises the need to boost construction recruitment and training provision in the sector. 

At the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA), workforce skills are important to us: with over 5,000 new starts in the electrotechnical and engineering services sector each year. We are naturally interested in what the SSAP has to say, while bringing our own perspectives on what might work and what won’t.

Some elements of the SSAP are clearly welcome. It is good to see the government and the main contractors and consultants who dominate the Construction Leadership Council acknowledging the importance of wider workforce skills – including those within the supply chain – to future industry productivity, innovation and sustainability. 

One SSAP recommendation – that industry should “collaborate to encourage all public and private sector clients to consistently mandate direct hire practices in their supply chain” – even seems to acknowledge, if only implicitly, the disastrous role race-to-the-bottom employment practices have played over the past 40 years in undermining the UK’s skills base. 

In other respects, however, the SSAP falls short.

Perhaps predictably, there is a disproportionate emphasis on off-site manufacturing, which regrettably now threatens to mutate into the UK construction sector’s latest universal panacea. Other, arguably more pressing skills issues risk being drowned out. 

The SSAP goes on to list a multitude of different, mostly unconnected training, communications and research initiatives. No doubt, these will help keep the CITB busy, but none get to the root of the problem, which is the paradox of regular and worsening skills shortages alongside a seemingly inexorable decline in construction businesses’ willingness or ability to train. 

Rather than ameliorating the symptoms, the CLC should be tackling the causes of what has now become a chronic condition. 

Over the past 40 years, the institutions, rules and shared values that supported sustainable training and employment have been systematically undermined in a single-minded, even ideological, pursuit of “flexibility” and “efficiency”. 

The UK has now wound up with a construction sector that is in many respects less flexible, less efficient and less innovative than in those countries where sustainable training and employment practices have continued to be supported. 

With just a bit more knowledge of our own history as well as what works well in other parts of the world, it is not hard to see where the real priorities for action now lie:

  • Embedding sustainable skills and employment practices into all contracts;
  • Amending tax and employment laws which incentivise false self-employment;
  • Reinforcing occupational standards, up to and including mandatory licensing of safety critical trades;
  • Acknowledging the important function played by responsible and representative trade unions in offering an independent workforce voice; and
  • Reinvigorating employer representative organisations and sectoral collective bargaining.

The electrotechnical and engineering services sector has successfully guarded its independence of action over skills and employment matters for many years, and is not about to give this up. Nevertheless, we are keen to see success for the CLC and the wider construction sector of which we are part, and hope to provide whatever input we can to this end.

Andrew Eldred, ECA director of employment and skills