Construction Skills, the government’s SECtor skills council for construction, has recently reported that the industry faces a ‘workforce timebomb’, in the form of an ageing workforce, which means that the skills shortage is likely to get worse before it gets better.

This is a particular problem for large growth areas, such as the Thames Gateway, where employers are dependent on importing skilled labour from outside the south-east and increasingly from outside the UK. And this shortfall does not take into account the siphoning off of labour needed for the 2012 Olympics.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Surely it would be better if local people were equipped to fill these jobs? The challenge, then, is to bridge the construction skills gap and ensure that the people of Thames Gateway have every opportunity to share in the benefits that a competitive and sustainable construction sector will bring.

To meet this challenge, a number of local and regional authorities, training providers, employment agencies and employers have joined forces and set up North Kent Construction Skills (NoKCS). In a nutshell, NoKCS seeks to meet employer needs for a skilled workforce while maximising opportunities for training and employment for local people. So, for example, we have created a Skillsmatch programme in partnership with Skillsgateway, JobCentre+ and Jobsmatch to target unemployed construction workers who have neither a qualification nor a CSCS card, which means they cannot get jobs on large construction sites.

A self-employed dry liner recently told me of the difficulties he faced. ‘I have worked in the industry as a self-employed, taught on-site dry liner for 20 years but didn’t have a piece of paper to my name,’ he said. ‘But it was becoming very difficult to work on any major projects because I didn’t have qualified CSCS status.’ Through NoKCS we found him a training provider and funding; and he has just completed his level 3 qualification, opening up a whole new level of opportunity.

We find that employers regularly complain that young people coming out of college do not have enough practical experience of the right kind. In turn, the colleges claim that companies are reluctant to offer youngsters the work-based learning necessary to complement their college work. A large part of what we do is bringing together businesses and training providers to improve both the quantity and quality of on-the-job training. Nearly 20 apprenticeships have been negotiated and numerous work placements found.

Our intention is that every development in the area – whether housing, offices, schools, hospitals, bridges or roads – will include a training and development agreement between the client and the developer. Core to this is that the developer will produce a training and skills profile for the project and identify where shortfalls are likely to occur. NoKCS will then help broker the demand not just for trainees and trained workers, but also for local contractors who can provide missing links in the supply chain. With the backing of Medway Council and Medway Renaissance, the prototype for this approach will be trialled by Crest Nicholson at its Rochester Riverside development.

Another key part of our strategy is the Construction Expo 2008, which takes place at Chatham Dockyard on 24 September. At the expo we are bringing together the South East England Development Agency, contractors, architects, developers, planners, housebuilders, suppliers and training providers to provide a platform for ideas sharing and networking. It will also include a mini schools programme, focusing on sustainability, to help forge links between the industry and education.

We have also set up training workshops, for instance we invited both college lecturers and local contractors from across Kent to a briefing workshop on installing cassette-engineered flooring systems, a modern method of construction that is used on large new housing developments. Increasingly young people and local businesses will need to demonstrate their familiarity with modern construction methods, particularly low-carbon technologies. Training has to become more and more relevant. There is a revolution under way in building methods and many training providers will struggle to engage employers unless they quickly realise which way the wind is blowing.