The ambition of the CITB reform plan is essential – now the industry itself must step up its game too, if construction’s skills challenges are to be met

Given the scale of the skills crisis affecting construction and the huge task of attracting, training and retaining large numbers of industry entrants, the CITB’s reform proposals – contained in its new Vision 2020 strategy – are a change programme for industry as well as an organisational transformation.

The journey to this point has been a long one – taking in the CITB’s previous reform programme, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, the government review of the industry training boards and a tumultuous consensus process.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) recent review not only concluded that market failures created through industry fragmentation still require the intervention of a training board, but also highlighted the evolving challenges facing the sector. Construction needs to train for a new set of multi-skills associated with offsite manufacture, but it also must increase the delivery of traditional labour skills in the face of a demographic time-bomb.

The industry itself will be increasingly responsible for collectively creating the market for providers to deliver training aligned to sector needs. A successful outcome depends on a change in its approach

Let’s be clear that the scale of the changes proposed in the CITB reform programme are transformational. The CITB will pivot away from being a delivery organisation focused on its own activities, delivering outcomes measured by skills delivery, industry diversity and so on. It must in future focus on identifying skills needs, inspiring people to join the industry and acting as a custodian of consistent, high-quality training – all activities that could not be centrally delivered if the industry were to rely on the apprenticeship levy alone.

By outsourcing all training delivery, certification management and business services, the CITB will become almost wholly dependent on its ability to influence the industry and its stakeholders – through research-based evidence, sector-wide influence and targeted investment in capacity development – in order to meet its performance targets and outcomes.

This means the industry itself will be increasingly responsible for collectively creating the market for providers to deliver training aligned to sector needs. A successful outcome depends on a change in the industry’s approach. One change signalled in the DfE review will be greater involvement of SME employers in CITB governance, acknowledging that SMEs are responsible for the training of most of the industry workforce.

There also needs to be wider recognition that the use of all training levy funding across the sector should be better focused on industry-wide outcomes rather than being driven by the maximisation of the recovery of levy contributions by individual businesses.

In the short term, the CITB leadership faces a huge task in driving the transformation of the organisation while simultaneously responding to a dynamic skills market – meeting the needs of high-speed rail, nuclear and the digitalisation of industry at a time when Brexit threatens the UK’s access to basic construction skills.

The Construction Leadership Council has publicly committed to support the CITB through the facilitation of strategic engagement at an industry level. SME engagement will also increase, through changes to governance. Increasingly, public-sector clients are also supporting the creation of apprenticeship places by building requirements into their project procurement requirements. Building on these positive developments, there are many areas where the wider industry can unite to work alongside the CITB – accepting greater accountability for the skills agenda.

Three immediate priorities that I pull out for action from the outset are:

  • Construction’s ability to access the apprenticeship levy is being held back by a lack of approved trailblazer projects. There is also evidence of a low level of engagement with the new levy scheme. Industry, the CITB and the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) urgently need to work together to accelerate the approval of new programmes and promote the scheme to employers. With a two-year cut-off to access the first tranche of funding, construction firms urgently need to embed the scheme in their training programmes.
  • Training solutions must be developed for the self-employed. Two in five of the workforce are self-employed, meaning 800,000 operatives fall outside existing training systems because there is so little incentive for investment. Greater cross-industry action to address the skills requirements of self-employed labour will be necessary if the skills crisis is not to grow even faster.
  • Diversity must be embraced. Women make up less than 2% of apprentices coming into construction, and black and minority-ethnic participation is low too. As a leading indicator of the future shape of the industry, this performance is unacceptable. Diversity is an industry-wide problem that can only be addressed at a business and project level – accountability must be held within the supply-chain.

The CITB’s commitment to change its focus to work along industry is welcome. Its challenge is to continue to deliver meaningful change in industry while transforming itself. The industry itself, meanwhile, must act consistently to create a market for skills providers, new skills development and most importantly, new talent. It will need to step up its game as much as the CITB has through its ambitious reforms.