It’s assumed that site workers spend more time wolf-whistling than learning skills. But the UK’s biggest single training effort aims to change all that. In the second of five monthly articles in association with ConstructionSkills, Building looks at how the industry will attempt to qualify 500,000 workers in the next five years.

Every cowboy builder story broadcast on prime time television reinforces the British public’s view that the construction industry is the last resort of the scoundrel, and slanders the skilled tradesmen who make up its ranks. The solution to this problem is the same for carpenters and plasterers as it is for doctors and barristers: rigorous training validated by examination. But it’s not going to be easy – we are talking about the largest single training programme in construction’s history.

The industry is atoning for the sins of the past. In the 1980s, the Conservative government saw the man with the van as a the ideal working class entrepreneur, and saw no reason to put entry barriers in his way.

The major contractors had an interest in the expanding the skills base of the industry, but they did not directly employ site workers. The small subcontractors saw no reason to train workers to be poached by those that didn’t, and the self-employed tradesman who’d been in the industry for donkey’s years had never needed qualifications before, so why did he need them now?

The laissez-faire days of the roaring eighties are as distant now as strikes over tea breaks at British Leyland. The government wants action on safety, clients such as BAA need more for return on their capital investment, and a consensus has grown within the industry that neither can be achieved without a regulated workforce.

The Major Contractors Group has provided the necessary framework and timetable for this regulation: it has committed itself to achieving a qualified workforce on all sites where an MCG member is the principal contractor. Everyone on a site needs a construction skills (CSCS) card. To obtain it you need an NVQ, and to obtain an NVQ you need on-site training (see box below).

As you might expect, the programme has run into problems. First, there has been some scepticism about the real value of a CSCS card. John Smith, a Building columnist, said he had obtained one through an agency that supplied false references, which led him to accuse the whole scheme of being yet another exercise in box-ticking.

Bill Jenkins, secretary of CSCS, argues that Smith may have had a point when he wrote his column in January of this year but doesn’t now: “To say that it is box-ticking is not fair,” he says. “When the scheme first opened up to particular trades there was a period in which existing workers could gain accreditation by simply applying. That was to get the scheme started. Now you have to have an NVQ.”

Which is another problem. The rigour in the system is provided by site assessment, which requires site assessors. Lots and lots of them. Who is going to train the trainers?

Further education colleges are still committed to class-based teaching (see “The assessor’s story”, opposite). Preston college is the only one that has a separate department for on-site assessment. It employs 30 full-time assessors, who assess candidates on sites throughout country. Each year the department qualifies about 3000 workers.

Fergus Robertson, the dean of site assessment at Preston, believes that there needs to be a culture change among training providers: “There needs to be more recognition of the usefulness of on-site training and assessment in qualifying the workforce. The take-up of OSAT by colleges is very poor. We have a team of mobile assessors. We have to set ourselves up to mirror the way the industry works.”

Not all training providers have run site assessments with such success. Earlier this year a training company called Trade Check had its accreditation withdrawn after a joint awarding body investigation found the business could not meet the required ratio of assessors to candidates. The CITB-ConstructionSkills stresses this was an isolated case, but it illustrates the problem: good assessors are hard to find.

It is a question of money. The ideal candidate is someone who has a lot of site experience, and so is expensive to hire, says Robertson. “At a further education college, wages for assessors are typically £20,000-25,000,” he says. “They could be earning twice that in the industry.”

Peter Lobban, chief executive of ConstructionSkills, is aware of this problem. “Last year we negotiated a deal where the Learning and Skills Council put up £10m for on-site training to deliver 10,000 NVQs,” he says. “We hope they will extend that successful pilot throughout the UK, but we need more assessors out on sites. We have to think creatively, for example would recent retirees come back part time as assessors?”

At the present salary for an assessor, it costs £500 to put a worker through the on-site assessment process. Multiply this by 500,000 workers and we get a bill of £250m, with additional payments required every year. Is the industry able to absorb such a sum or can extra funding be found to ensure the continued progress of the scheme? If not, what does it suggest we do instead?

The lowdown on: On-site training and assessment

  • Already 26,000 have been through on-site training and assessment (OSAT) and the number of CSCS card holders has reached 600,000 – with 20,000 applications arriving a month

  • On-site training and assessment takes up to six months and all the work is done on site

  • OSAT assessors visit sites to carry out a skills review. Individuals are given an action plan to fill any skills gaps and are signed up for a specialised NVQ

  • Workers are observed by assessors while on site, so there is no down time. They check workers have the skills they claim to have, and verify that they are the correct standard to achieve the NVQ

  • The employer covers the costs, typically £500, although most of that can be claimed back in the form of a CITB grant. The health and safety test costs £35 which is also covered by the CITB grant

What’s in it for contractors?

Steve Massara, training manager at Wates Group, explains how the contractor converted to on-site training and assessment and hasn’t looked back since

On-site training and assessment was not something contractor Wates had considered two years ago. It had managed with its staff of 15,000 most of whom were construction professionals who already had the necessary qualifications. As for workers on site, they were not directly employed and so it was assumed subcontractors would deal with training.

That all changed when the MCG decided that all workers had to have CSCS cards to prove their competency and safety awareness. As part of the MCG, Wates signed up to these targets and set about working with their subcontractors. "We set up a series of training road shows, where we explained how on-site training would happen," says Steve Massara, training manager at Wates Group.

Massara reckons that Wates has more than 6000 workers on site on any day around the country. "That's an awful lot of people to keep track of. It's a huge task trying to organise training for a mobile workforce, a worker could be on a different site each day, or even moving from us one week to another contractor the next."

Wates now has a contract with Preston college to provide assessors to all of its sites. The advantage is that it's the assessor who travels to the site and not the worker travelling to the college. It saves time and money. "This is a service we provide to our subcontractors. We are setting the standards for workers, but we are also providing a means for them to achieve those standards."

But what about the costs? Massara says that on-site training is not expensive. "We sold the idea to our subcontractors by saying it won't cost them a penny. We pay the bill for the college assessors. We get most of that back from the CITB grants."

It would have been easy for Wates to have left the task to the subcontractors. "In fact we have registered over 2000 workers for on-site training. Our only constraint is the number of assessors."

But Massara is confident that the industry will find a way to qualify its workforce, if only out of necessity. "Clients want to know our workers are qualified. They will increasingly demand to see CSCS cards to prove it. Already in the tender process good clients are asking about the quality of our people. The next step is for us to guarantee the quality of our subcontractors."

A joint effort: The assessor’s story

Jim Gregory talks about why he 'came off the tools' to become an OSAT assessor, and Neil Harrison, one of his candidates, explains what getting an NVQ means to him

Jim Gregory has been an on-site assessor at Preston College's OSAT centre for five years and he loves it. "It's the expression you see on the candidates' face when they’ve been told they’ve successfully completed an NVQ. I still get the same buzz out of that."

Jim is a joiner by trade with 29 years experience behind him. He took the job at the college because he felt he could make a difference in an industry with such a poor safety record. "If I could help the candidate improve his awareness of safety on site it would benefit him and the industry. The safety part of our job cannot be overstated."

So what does an on-site assessor actually do? Jim is very clear about what he doesn’t do: "We don't test or train an individual. OSAT is for experienced workers." Jim knows many workers are wary of being tested, but says they are reassured once they realise that he won't be standing over their shoulder with a tape measure. "At the induction we explain what units must be completed to gain the NVQ." When Jim does identify a problem that a worker may have with a particular skill he organises for the company to provide training.

Now Jim is one of the leading assessors at the centre, part of his job is to mentor others who are training to be assessors. He says that to be an assessor you've got to have expertise in your trade. But expertise is not enough, you've also got to adapt to a different working culture and it doesn’t suit everyone: "I'd been used to paperwork as a former contract supervisor, so it wasn't a culture shock. But if you're a brickie or a joiner and you've 'come off the tools' as we say, it can be hard."

There are other difficult aspects of the job. "Some companies can be uncooperative. There’s nothing worse than going on site to be told you can't have access to a candidate because he's been moved to another site, when they've known for a week you've been coming. It's time wasted." To reduce the risk of that happening firms should ensure that there should be a minimum of four workers to be assessed on each site.

The money is not great either, at least not compared with wages you can get in the trade. "There's been a boom in joinery, which has meant wages have gone up. But you have to weigh that up with the casual nature of the job – a joiner may not find work for the whole year." And of course there's the travelling. Jim and his colleagues travel all over the country, from Northern Ireland to the Isle of White. "For me that is definitely the worst part of the job, the novelty of travelling wears off."

But despite the downsides, Jim says the job is rewarding: "It's good when a candidate who has been worried about getting the qualification proves that with a little advice and guidance he or she is competent at his trade. You see their self-esteem is raised. Because of that they often feel that they could go further and do even better."

The candidate’s experience

Name: Neil Harrison
Age: 22
Job title: Factory foreman, managing five staff
Employer: JJ Harrison, supplier of PVCu windows and doors in Leigh, Greater Manchester. Neil helped set up the company which employs 13 people with his dad three and a half years ago
Previous qualifications: 10 GCSEs, no trade-related qualifications

I've just completed my NVQ level 2 in production of glass supported fabrication through the OSAT scheme. I've had no qualifications or official training in the trade since I joined at 16, I just learned from other people, just picking things up. I've always tried to learn as much as I can from the other lads as I’m going along.

Out of the five of us who work on the factory floor, me and another lad called Nick have gone through OSAT so far. My assessor was Jim Gregory from Preston college. He came in and watched what we do and asked us questions about it. Basically we just had to prove to him that we could do the job and do it safely.

It took about eight weeks to get the qualification, with Jimmy visiting once a fortnight. He'd phone up before and ask if we were going to be doing a job that he'd not already observed and we'd suggest a date for him to visit. He got a wide view of the different jobs that we do. He also checked that we were using the equipment correctly and that it complied with health and safety.

One thing that Jimmy picked up on was that the other lad Nick needed training on the cutting machines. As I've got experience on the machines Jimmy asked me to give him training for about a fortnight and he came back and checked that Nick was confident in what he was doing. It had never come up before that Nick needed training in that area. Now he's trained I can ask him to fill in if I'm needed somewhere else.

I see this NVQ as a stepping stone if I ever do look to getting more qualifications or say I needed to get another job outside of my dad's firm it would be a lot easier now to approach other companies. It's a bit of an insurance policy.

OSAT has been much better than having to go to a college. With a smallish company like this you can't really afford to take time off to go and get certificates. Also I got on really well with the assessor – apart from being a Scouser, Jimmy was great. I didn’t really have time to worry about being assessed, which was the best bit about it. As long as the assessor doesn’t have a problem with what you're doing then you don’t really need to think about it. It was just easy.

It's nice to have a certificate, even though I knew I could do the job already. My dad's pleased, he'll be able to put the certificate on the office wall – it makes him look good too.