ConstructionSkills is launching a drive to tackle the skills crisis. The initiative – Action for Skills – aims to kick-start a debate among employers on training. In the first of five monthly articles, Building, in association with ConstructionSkills, looks at what's gone wrong and how it can be fixed.
Shaied Gulzar is 22 and wants to be a bricklayer. Instead he's unemployed. The training course he started did not offer on site experience, which he needs to get the NVQ. Without an NVQ he can't get a job. So Shaied dropped out. He's not alone – all around the country there are thousands of young people who want to get into the industry but find themselves in the same catch-22 situation (see Shaied's full story on page 55).

The irony is that construction desperately needs young, keen people like Shaied. Research in January by ConstructionSkills showed that the industry has to train 83,000 skilled workers a year to meet growth. And the consequences for business? Inevitably, a decline in productivity and an increase in costs. The National Employers Skills Survey showed that 40% of construction firms experienced increased costs because of a lack of skills.

Demand for construction has never been greater. Government – construction's biggest client – is calling on the industry to deliver ever more ambitious targets on schools, housing, hospitals and transport infrastructure. But there are fears that the labour shortages are a major constraint on the industry.

At the heart of these problems is a legacy of poor recruitment and training. Construction is known for being a fragmented industry, structured around subcontractors and a mobile workforce. That makes it flexible and able to respond to rises in demand. But when it comes to training, there is little incentive for firms to invest. This is partly why so many colleges fail to find work experience placements for their students, and why in a workforce of two million, more than one-quarter have no vocational qualifications.

ConstructionSkills' latest initiative seeks to address these problems by finding an industry-wide approach to training. One method of reaching the whole supply chain, according to Peter Lobban, chief executive of ConstructionSkills, would be to organise training around the construction project. "Seventy-five per cent of the industry is based on subcontracts where crafts people are not directly employed. We need a major shift towards project based training, where we can start training new groups of people." The idea is that the whole supply chain participates in training and all firms benefit from a properly qualified workforce.

On site training and assessment (OSAT) is seen as the key to achieving the industry's own target of an all-qualified workforce by 2010. The aim is for all existing workers to attain an NVQ level 2 and associated CSCS card. Already ConstructionSkills has had some success with a pilot scheme set up in association with the Learning Skills Council.

But ConstructionSkills is concerned that if more funding does not become available such schemes will never get off the ground. The levy is already stretched by current grant commitments. ConstructionSkills estimates that about £40m a year is needed for the OSAT program to become UK wide and £20m for large-scale apprentice recruitment and training. In particular it would like to see extra funding to compensate employers for the time lost when training an apprentice. The target of an end to the skills shortage and an all-qualified workforce is not unrealistic, but it does require the political will to make it happen.

As a Sector Skills Council since September 2003, ConstructionSkills should be in a strong lobbying position. Last year the government issued its skills white paper, which proposed collaboration in the form of sector skills agreements between employers, government and training providers (see page 54 for more details). These agreements could revolutionise the way training is conducted. In drawing up these agreements ConstructionSkills will be consulting employers. Now is the chance for employers to make their voice heard in the debate.

The consequences if ConstructionSkills fails to broker this new training deal could be devastating. Without adequate, well targeted funding the whole industry will suffer – it will affect not just productivity rates, health and safety standards or government targets, it will also continue to limit the potential of thousands of young people like Shaied. Much depends on how the industry reacts to this challenge and how much employers are committed to it. As Lobban puts it: "Is our industry up for this? And if so, how can it see it working?"

Your say: What are the skills priorities?

We need more skilled resources. Better trained, better qualified people. Every time the market expands we fall back on overseas labour. We need a stronger indigenous skills pool. That’s exactly what ConstructionSkills is trying to do. The other side of this is the industry has got to back ConstructionSkills, it can’t just devolve responsibility for training.
Peter Rogers, chairman of the strategic forum and developer Stanhope

The most important issue is more funding from government and to get small to medium sized companies involved in training. Our training centres have waiting lists for apprentices. The problem is firms are frightened by the cost. They don’t realise what’s available in terms of CITB-ConstructionSkills and LSC grants.
Adrian Harrison, training manager, Henry Boot

At the moment colleges are not dynamic places, they are underfunded. But they have the potential to be centres of excellence. They could also do more to offer short courses for people who could do with brushing up on skills. The problem is government policy favours academic education, vocational training isn’t valued. We could learn a lot from other countries, like Australia where crafts have a higher status.
Tim Senn, managing director, Oakwoods Builders and Joinery Ltd, Oxfordshire, employs 33 people

I believe the sector skills status of ConstructionSkills will help to raise awareness of the skills shortage faced by the industry. But we need collaboration between ConstructionSkills, employers and the government to have a significant influence on the demand for skills. There’s been a lot of research on the projected skills shortages and we need to work together to address this problem
Martin Price, managing director, Carpentry Management Contracting Ltd, Bedfordshire, about 75 staff and subcontractors

The big question is how to encourage high quality candidates to join construction based training schemes as their first and not last choice. Employers do need to put together their own plans to recruit and retain staff, this may include student sponsorships; improved working conditions and facilities; access to high-end IT; ongoing and comprehensive training programmes; and development opportunities, including mentoring schemes.
Brian Baily, chairman and senior partner, Baily Garner LLP, Greenwich based multi-skilled practice, voted one of the Sunday Times best small companies to work for

Employer power: The great skills debate

Sector skills agreements may not sound sexy, but they could revolutionise the way training is conducted in the industry. The agreements are negotiated between ConstructionSkills, the government and government agencies such as the Learning and Skills Council. They formally agree the future of construction training and for the first time employers have a part in the process. For example, instead of colleges deciding which courses to offer according to which are popular, employers, through ConstructionSkills will be able to ask for the skills training they need.

    "The vision is that for the first time employers can be confident that training will meet job needs"
    Sir Michael Latham, chairman of ConstructionSkills

The aim is to raise skills levels, reduce the skills shortage and increase productivity. ConstructionSkills is asking employers for their views on a range of topics, such as: how can apprenticeships work better? How can we qualify more workers? Do graduates meet the needs of the industry? How can we set up joint-contractor training? How much should employers contribute to the cost of training?

Peter Lobban believes these agreements are a unique opportunity for employers to have their say and to negotiate a new deal for training in construction. “The cynics may say it will never work but what a fantastic opportunity to achieve a professional industry we can all be proud of.”

Building readers can have their say on the future of training by logging onto

Shaied’s story

A year ago Shaied Galzar decided he wanted to be a bricklayer. He’d picked up an interest at home when he had helped his dad build an extension. He enjoyed it so much he jacked in his job at the local BMW plant. He never thought that 12 months on he’d be unemployed …

Shaied, 22 with seven GCSEs and a Btech in business studies behind him, enrolled last summer at Oxford College for a brickwork NVQ2 course. It attracted him because he could earn £120 a week as an apprentice while he learned the trade. The only problem was, he would have to find his own work placement. With no contacts in the industry, he knew this would not be easy.

His first port of call was CITB-ConstructionSkills, which sent him a list of about 13 local firms looking for apprentices. But when he phoned each company, the reply was the same – they didn’t need anyone at the moment. He didn’t even get an interview. “They either say that they do not want anybody, or I have to leave a message and nobody phones back,” says Shaied.

It was only in January this year that he got his first break. Through a friend he met a local builder who was willing to take him on as an apprentice. But after two months he was told there wouldn’t be enough work for him. It turned out a friend of the owner had a son who needed an apprenticeship. If proper procedures had been followed this would never have happened. The fact that it did reveals problems that need to be tackled.

The experience has left him feeling annoyed. “It just wasn’t enough time to get involved with any of the skilled stuff. But if I had stayed longer, I would have got more out of it. I’m also angry that I bought all my own gear – I spent £80 on tools – and now I can’t use them.”

Without a placement, Shaied’s attendance on the course began to slip. He was eventually advised by his tutors to give up the course, as with no work experience he could not gain his qualification. “I wasn’t picking up the skills. So there wasn’t any point staying.” He officially dropped out in May.

Now Shaied is unemployed and wondering what went wrong. Part of the reason he thinks is that many firms are reluctant to lose skilled workers valuable time teaching or supervising an apprentice. “There is so much demand for work, employers don’t seem to have time to teach people skills.” Shaied’s experience is not unique – he says that others on his course took months to find work placements and found the process difficult, but he fears that the fact that he is Asian may have had an influence.

“I wouldn’t like to think that it’s because I’m Asian, but I can’t help feeling it might be a factor.” In fact, the lack of work placements is endemic throughout the industry and affects hundreds of students who want to do an apprenticeship.

Despite all the obstacles, Shaied says he’s determined to have a career in construction. He’s still contacting companies, and he’s started to help with his dad’s property business, painting and decorating flats and houses that are let to students. The problem is that he doesn’t have a real income and so he might have to find unrelated work to pay the bills: “I’ve signed up for work at an agency. I’ll take any work I’m given.” Ultimately he’d like to become a properly qualified builder and work in the housing sector, perhaps setting up his own business building and refurbishing houses. “At the moment that doesn’t seem very likely, does it?”


ConstructionSkills is the newly appointed Sector Skills Council for the construction industry and is a partnership between CITB-ConstructionSkills, the Construction Industry Council and CITB Northern Ireland. In September 2003 ConstructionSkills was given a mandate to lead the drive for improved skills and productivity.