The industry should be thinking hard about what sort of graduates it wants from our colleges and universities
One of the challenges for a modern economy is matching the skills available to meet the variable demands. Part of the problem is the lag between the commencement of a skills programme and the output - the availability may be out of kilter with demand. Too small a skill base at times of high demand attracts more people to train but sometimes they only become available when demand is in decline. This situation has arisen many times in the past. A skilled workforce with nothing to do is a waste and a drain on the human spirit and it raises questions as to what will drive people to train for a future in construction.
Another part of the problem is the suitability of the output from the various training programmes. There is criticism by many construction leaders that college and university output is unsatisfactory and that graduates subsequently need to be trained by employing firms, not only in basics but also in technical processes. This may arise because school education is inadequate or for other reasons, such as courses providing a general education within the subject area rather than developing technical skills.
How then do you educate personnel for the construction industry? Here are just some of the questions that need to be addressed:
- Do we take technically trained personnel directly from colleges and universities?
- Do we also need other disciplines not technically trained in construction, but who provide a contextual framework for business to operate - for example, economists, accountants and lawyers?
- If so, do such persons also need a contextual knowledge of construction?
- Is the process the same for “craft” persons as for non-manual construction disciplines?
Because of the strong attractions of other business sectors, finding well-educated personnel who wish to work in the industry will continue to be a problem. Although attracting appropriately qualified graduates for the non-manual disciplines will remain an issue, the greater problem is likely to be finding those who are capable of and willing to carry out physical construction operations.
Too small a skill base at times of high demand attracts more people to train, but sometimes they only become available when demand is in decline
There is a distinction to be made here between, on the one hand, educating principally by training to perform a role within the construction industry and, on the other, educating personnel who may at some later stage enter the industry and then be trained in its specific aspects.
If we educate without training for the roles that currently exist, then the output will often be seen as unsatisfactory because of its inability to operate current processes. On the other hand, where the emphasis is on training in processes, it is possible that the output will be unsatisfactory because processes change or the training is company-specific.
Therefore, the challenge is educating personnel for the construction industry of both today and the future. This cannot be achieved by colleges and universities alone and it is why earlier this year the Joint Contracts Tribunal implemented its education initiative (www.jctltd.co.uk/education-and-students.aspx). It suggests that:
- There must be changes within the school curriculum so as to address the basic educational requirements of the workplace.
- Construction-related courses should develop transferable skills within a construction context and provide training in current technical processes.
- Differences between educational provisions should be transparent so that employers can properly assess the output against their own requirements.
- Employers need to accept that new recruits will have deficiencies, to identify what they are and to provide structured staff development as part of a continuing professional development. This includes providing assistance for non-cognate personnel to secure construction knowledge.
- Employers need to adopt an open-minded approach and concentrate on matching their actual requirements with the output.
- Employees accept that their training never ends and take responsibility for their own continuing development.
- Training for those who physically build needs to be reviewed so as to distinguish between “craft” workers and assemblers. The training period of assemblers can be significantly shorter.
- Government must provide an encouraging backdrop by stimulating investment in infrastructure, construction and upgrading the built environment.
No educational programme is able to meet all the needs of the student and their prospective employers. The emphasis must be on acquiring transferable skills together with an appropriate contextual knowledge and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Peter Hibberd is the chairman of the Joint Contracts Tribunal