Technology is threatening to deskill the UK workforce and we must act fast to keep up. The CITB gives us a sound basis to train up talent – even if you want to change certain aspects, we must unite behind it or we will live to regret it
Around 2.8 million people work in the construction sector – which is only slightly less than the population of Wales. Just like Wales, the industry is not homogeneous and is subject to much external influence. Unlike Wales, we don’t have a publicly funded National Assembly or civil service, instead we have a spider’s web of representative bodies, associations, specialist and single issue groups.
The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) – which is jointly chaired by a government minister – Lord David Prior – and Andrew Wolstenholme, chief executive of Crossrail, was established to act as a bridge between the government and the industry on the really big industry issues – which at the moment means the post-Brexit and post-digital-revolution era.
I can’t see that there is any real likelihood of schools or railways not being built in the future, but there is a significant probability of them being built by skilled labour in overseas factories. There is a likelihood of site tasks being performed by sophisticated foreign-manufactured unmanned machinery, with all but the most complex designs being produced using artificial intelligence and a progressive deskilling of the UK workforce.
This view runs counter to many in the industry – who concentrate on the short-term impact of the loss of plentiful, highly trained and motivated EU workers – rather than the medium-term view that irrespective of Brexit, the industry will be unrecognisable in 20 years’ time.
Comparisons are often drawn with the automotive or aerospace industries, but a more prescient comparison may be agriculture – in 1841, 22% of the entire UK working population was employed in farming, but by 2011 it had fallen to less than 1%. Over the same period, the construction workforce saw modest growth from 5% to 8% of the UK workforce.
There has never been a greater need for the industry to rally round some national cross-industry initiatives, rather than argue about the annoying details
In agriculture, we have seen massive restructuring, the amalgamation of small farms into conglomerates, mechanisation of dangerous, outdoor occupations and the introduction of sophisticated, digitally controlled irrigation and soil nutrition systems, coupled with a year-on-year increase in cheap imported food. Does that sound familiar?
So, do we accept that this is simply progress, or do we focus on the things that we can control and make sure the UK construction industry continues to play its part? The ongoing debate around the effectiveness of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and its reform against the backdrop of the Apprenticeship Levy is a good example of where we could make a very good decision or live to rue the day when we didn’t.
While work may still need to be done to maximise the industry benefit from the two levies, there is a pretty broad consensus that we are neither attracting nor training enough people in the skills they will need to deliver a 21st-century industry.
Politics has got in the way of publication of the current CITB review, but we know that the recommendations are to reform and keep the body. The CITB and the national standards behind the levy must surely give us a sound basis on which to take the whole industry forward. This is broader than a skills and training agenda – this is a perception issue. Where are we now? And where could we be? There has never been a greater need for the industry to rally round some national cross-industry initiatives, rather than argue about the annoying details.
There will always be younger, success-hungry people working on more interesting, more effective and more efficient ideas. Our role, as the incumbents, is to make sure that these are nurtured in Southport or Southend, not imported from Shenzhen or São Paulo.
Why would we destroy perhaps the most representative and potentially the most powerful co-ordinator of our industry when we could be building on it and identifying and making any necessary changes?
Why would we destroy perhaps the most representative and potentially the most powerful co-ordinator of our industry when we could be building on it and identifying and making any necessary changes? The CITB should be the focal point for attracting people into our industry, ensuring that they have the skills to flourish and thus enabling the industry to flourish. The Apprenticeship Levy is a highly targeted training and development fund – run by the industry for the industry – to both attract new recruits and up-skill the existing workforce. Personally, I don’t see conflict between the two or an excess of training and development. Here at RLB, we have worked extremely hard to ensure the investment that the government has forced us to make in our staff through the Apprenticeship Levy will be effective. This year, we forecast using more than 100% of our levy contributions to fund highly targeted degree apprenticeships for new recruits and development programmes for our existing staff. By doing this we are deepening the skill base of the industry and widening its attractiveness to a more diverse group – which must be good things.
The Construction Leadership Council is well under way to submitting detailed proposals to the government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to jointly address major industry issues, with a particular focus on research, development, standardisation and skills.
By pulling together, not only can we get our own house in order but we can also build on our position as an exporter to the global market.