If winning the Olympics was a triumph, building them will be a miracle. The reason is that we don’t have enough skilled workers – but who’s to blame for that?

Now that London has been awarded the 2012 Olympics, the search for the skilled people who will build the facilities has started. I presume that we will be looking east of the River Oder, because there is still a skills shortage in the South-east. My experience in the past few years has been in the London area, where I have found that there is not necessarily a lack of labour, but there is a lack of labour with the necessary training. Most of the craftspeople on sites that I visit are not trained, or are poorly trained. I know there are many exceptions to this statement but it is true as a generalisation.

Training in the industry has always been poor but has grown steadily worse, because the industry has never wanted to pay for it. All governments have tinkered with vocational training to no great effect. Over a 20-year period as a lecturer I was asked to implement many initiatives and dealt with many organisations – most of them now long forgotten – including WEEPs, MSC, TECs, CPVE, Skills Councils, NVQ, and GNVQ. In the final analysis, these achieved little. Somewhere there must be an elephant’s graveyard full of dead training initiatives.

CITB-ConstructionSkills and the NVQ qualification are now practically the only games in town for craft training, and have been for a number of years. As the controlling body the CITB must accept responsibility for the current state of affairs. One councillor of the Institute of Carpenters recently called the NVQ a weapon of mass destruction. In a recent article in the IOC’s Cutting Edge newsletter, Chris Tooke, chief examiner for the institute, said: “At the colleges I work at, there is a distinct opinion that the training of students for the construction industry is insufficient … The CITB was given a final chance to redeem itself and prove to be financially viable. Because of this, the cost of training students is a lot higher than when the training was the responsibility of the City & Guilds.”

I know that the CITB generates £1.69 for every pound of levy it collects; but in many of its dealings the CITB is a monopoly organisation with no competition. And with all the money it extracts from colleges and training organisations, and all the courses that it runs and books that it sells, it should generate even more money.

In November 2003, Dennis Lenard, the chief executive of Constructing Excellence, said that within two years he would change the negative image of the industry and create and retain 300,000 trained operatives in the industry. If anybody has seen these extra operatives or noticed any change in the industry’s image, could they let me know? It takes more than PR mumbo-jumbo to change the industry in a positive way.

Why has it proved so hard to supply the industry with trained labour? The principal reason is that the structure of the industry works against the attraction and training of high quality people. In the London area, more than 80% of site labour is self-employed. And with self-employment comes a lack of holiday pay, sick pay, pension, redundancy, security or career structure.

A self-employed construction worker is five times as likely to die in a work-related accident as their directly employed colleague.

In London, 80% of site labour is self-employed. And with self-employment comes no holiday pay, sick pay, pension, redundancy, security or career structure. A self-employed construction worker is five times more likely to die

Self-employment also works against training. The most valuable part of training must take place on site in real conditions, but on most sites there is nobody to train with. Self-employed people working on bonus with prices cut to the bone cannot accept the task of training new people, yet this responsibility has been passed on to them by the main contractors.

The image of the industry at the craft level has never been lower. It is nearly impossible to attract good quality people into the crafts. School teachers have a dim view of the industry. The only people in general that the schools direct our way are the low achievers who are perceived to be good enough for construction. The CITB publishes impressive figures of the number of people under training but there is an enormous drop-out rate.

Also, like teaching and nursing, many people seem to get qualifications but never work in the industry. One day on site is enough for many recruits. Last year Lenard said the construction industry was stuck in the 1980s but on the small sites where most people actually work, they are still in the 1960s. At craft level the industry remains a hard and dirty job.

Most of the training initiatives and the organisations set up after the Egan reports have achieved little. It is not that the people in industry disagree with the aims of these organisations or initiatives. They have simply never heard of them. If they have, they cannot see any relevance to their working lives. How do we improve this situation? In the short term it is nearly impossible to change anything. But an effort must be made to improve the position and the status of site workers. If we are to attract the skilled people we need to build the Olympics, we must change the reality of the industry and not just the image.

John Smith is a clerk of works for surveyors Cluttons