Building the next generation takes more than offering courses. What skills are needed? Who wants to learn them? And who’s going to pay? Constructing Excellence adopts the holistic view

Future in hand
Future in hand

Sue Hobbs, project director with Constructing Excellence, is clearly not one for mind games. “I heard someone say the other day that there was no skills crisis in construction,” she says. “But it’s not some kind of invented conspiracy. Ourselves, CITB-ConstructionSkills and the CIC are all giving the same warnings.”

Looking at the statistics, it’s easy to understand Hobbs’ concern. The industry is currently 300,000 workers short of its full capacity, and needs to recruit 88,000 people for each of the next five years if its current order books are to be completed.

It’s a tough challenge, and one that demands cooperation among all industry sectors if it is to be met. Acting independently, no one training body or supply chain sector has influence far-reaching enough to solve the whole problem. Constructing Excellence’s challenge is to persuade the industry that they must play their part and that there are business benefits to doing so.

The problem does not stop with recognising the crisis. There are a series of other issues. One of the most fundamental is over where resources should be directed. Hobbs explains: “The conversation often comes back to the need for bricklayers and carpenters. But there is also a need to focus on training the people already in the industry in wider business skills, in leadership and in working in integrated teams.”

There is also a need to ensure that existing workers are developed. “Once we have attracted clever and enthusiastic young people into the industry, we need to make sure we keep them,” she says. “Law and consulting companies ensure that recent graduates are given early challenges and responsibility, offered support and training to achieve further qualifications and that they have clear career paths. It’s not only about pay, though that always helps!”

At the end of November, Constructing Excellence agreed to work with the members of ConstructionSkills (CITB-ConstructionSkills, CITB Northern Ireland and the Construction Industry Council) to work together in areas where both organisations have roles to play.

“We have a common agenda to improve the performance of business, even if the focus is slightly different. The agreement is there to make us think about what still needs to be done and what can be done better by working in partnership.” She refutes any suggestion that the deal is just symbolic. “In many regions we have been collaborating for some time, if perhaps at representative level rather than actually doing things together.

“In six regions CE and CITB-ConstructionSkills staff are reviewing past activities and developing action plans. The aim is to provide a co-ordinated approach to our customers so that when they want help they are not confused by a wealth of offerings,” Hobbs says. “At a national level, we are thinking about how we can use CE Demonstration projects to promote the benefits of addressing skills and to showcase construction to young people in schools and to the wider community.”

Making the client care

CE’s independence also helps it bring other areas of the industry together. One of its main successes has been in forging collaboration between clients and contractors. If clients demand training provision on a project, bidders will do it. “The influence of the client is not the only thing that can help, but it’s a huge power driver,” she says. “If the client doesn’t ask for companies to commit to training, it gives them a ready excuse not to bother.”

One of CE’s most high-profile client-driven schemes is its “Sustainable Training for Sustainable Communities” project. The Housing Forum, as part of CE, has teamed up with CITB-ConstructionSkills to meet the demand for skills in the growing housing sector. They’ll encourage social housing clients to create frameworks for training within their procurement strategies.

It already consists of 17 refurbishment schemes around the country, which provide employment and training for apprentices, women, ethnic minorities and those needing support to return to work. The refurbishment schemes range from medium-sized projects (£21m refurbishment of 1,600 units) to larger ones (£240m works on 20,000 homes, running between 3 and 10 years).

Housing clients, including local authorities, housing associations and ALMOs, have been very receptive to the initiative, and Krystyna Blackburn, of the Housing Forum, says that it is easy to identify areas where the whole supply chain can gain from the partnership.

“The project represents an opportunity for housing clients in particular to bring their influence and support on capacity building their own supply chain.

“Also, given the huge skills shortage, contractors do worry about attracting a steady workforce. This programme gives them the chance to guarantee one for themselves. Furthermore it’s the chance for all involved to develop and support the local community.”

In step with political ambitions

One of Sustainable Skills for Sustainable Communities’ key advantages is that in addition to precipitating client involvement, it is tied in with government initiative. Hobbs believes that this is an important link to make.

“If the government took the lead by being more proactive in its demands, other clients would probably follow suit. Schemes where long-term investments are made, such as schools and hospitals, would be particularly suitable,” she says. “It’s such an important attitude if government projects such as school building aren’t to suffer from skills shortages in the future.”

Making the business case for skills

With so many initiatives targeted at reducing the skills crisis, it remains a mystery why some within the industry refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists.

This attitude must change if programmes such as those run by CE are to succeed, not least because of the constant need for more funding for training development.

Hobbs says: “Part of CE’s role is to provide the evidence to convince all parts of the industry that training people is an investment which brings benefits to companies: improved efficiency and quality, reduced staff turnover and, increasingly, the ability to win work.”

Portsmouth scheme sees kids queue for training

The St Luke’s Project is a construction training centre set up and maintained by Mitie Property Services (MPS) at St Luke’s Secondary School, Portsmouth. Three years ago, MPS converted an art room at the school into a specialised workshop, where students learn basic construction skills.Pupils are currently taught a GNVQ in construction and the built environment, which is equivalent to four GCSEs. This will be replaced by a BTEC diploma in September. MPS and its suppliers are actively involved in teaching the pupils, who study practical skills such as bricklaying, tiling, painting and carpentry. Students also learn planning theory and health and safety practice.

It’s a hit. Applications this year exceeded the number of places, and there is talk of expanding downward below the current 15-16 age range. Part of this enthusiasm has resulted from the clear career path the course offers. The most successful students each year are invited to join MPS for a three-year apprenticeship, which could lead to a permanent job on one of the company’s many housing projects in the area.

MPS director Adrian Dawson says that this long-term prospect is a strong factor in encouraging pupils to enter the scheme. He says: “It’s a great opportunity for pupils. There’s high unemployment and low expectations in the area, but this project gives them the courage to fulfil their potential.”

The company is now looking at setting up similar schemes nationwide with the support of CITB-ConstructionSkills.