This week offered a fantastic shop window for construction. First there was the glamour surrounding the Queen’s opening of St Pancras and the high-speed rail link.
This has given us a wonderfully restored Victorian icon and the first new rail line in a century. Both were completed on time and to budget, as we reported at length in our 19 October issue. Then there was the eagerly anticipated design for the Olympic stadium and, on a slightly more sober note, a whole raft of measures in the Queen’s speech. These place construction at the heart of the political agenda. We’re talking here about plans to build 3 million homes, Crossrail and a generation of nuclear power stations, and cut carbon dioxide emissions 60% by 2050. In other words, what we do has never been so exciting or so essential as it is now.
Alongside the money and the projects, the speech addressed the equally important issue of people. The plan is to extend the age at which children must be in training or full-time education until 18. Sensibly, this dovetails with an apprenticeship bill to ensure that any 16 year old who wants an apprenticeship is able to get one by 2013, and the target for these is set to double from 250,000 to 500,000. The overarching aim is to reduce industry’s dependence on immigration: Brown’s mantra has become “British jobs for British people”.
So construction is brimming with possibilities, and as it’s also the UK’s largest employer, its training needs are of vital concern to the government. The question is: will we ever connect the two? Instead, we have the sorry spectacle of 50,000 people applying for 7,000 apprenticeships – and the number of places available falling by 25% on the previous year. And it’s not as if it’s a question of money – every year the fund for apprenticeships has cash left unspent. There are many reasons for this, but the most basic is that the industry has become used to the convenience of an endless supply of well trained Polish labour, and frankly it is quite happy with the status quo.
Speaking in a film about the regeneration effect of the high-speed rail line, Sir Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, made the point that 18,000 people of employment age in his borough had never worked. For him, the thrill of the Olympics is that it will create 20,000 jobs. How many will be in construction? Very few, one imagines, unless the contracts demand it. And that’s looking increasingly unlikely.
The most persistent image from the opening of St Pancras was the huge civic pride of the occasion. It created a real sense of romance – not just the well established glamour of international rail travel but also the heroic spirit of construction, often present but rarely acknowledged. One might disagree about keeping children at school till 18, but the government certainly has the right idea about training. Industry needs to find a way to help it, and in the process take some civic pride of its own in training a generation of skilled crafts people.
Denise Chevin, editor