The Construction Industry Training Board has been in the firing line as the industry struggles with a skills shortage. New boss Tim Balcon tells Carl Brown about his non-academic background, personal tragedy and his mission to improve vocational qualifications
“I mean, you go through my life’s journey, and actually money and material things don’t mean a jot to me anymore, to be honest…”
Construction Industry Training Board boss Tim Balcon is talking about why he left a lucrative job as chief executive of property agent membership body Property Mark last year after just five months in the role. The answer he explains, is that he felt quite quickly as though “he was not going to make a difference”.
Two unimaginable personal tragedies – first losing his 19-year-old daughter Leonie to cancer 14 years ago and then the death of his wife Shirley, also to cancer two years ago – means that Balcon has put things in perspective.
In simple terms, he is no longer going to tolerate a high-level job unless he feels like he can change things for the better. In fact, he was convinced the Property Mark job would be his last and he had effectively retired.
So how did he end up this time last year returning to full-time work as chief executive of a slimmed-down and much-criticised CITB? It is after all a body facing a herculean challenge of tackling a construction skills shortage post-Brexit and in the midst of a cost crisis. Surely making a difference here will be difficult in the extreme?
Balcon joins Building to talk about his lifelong “personal mission” to improve vocational skills, his vision for the board and how he plans to counter the perennial criticism from some in the industry over the CITB’s funding model.
Before we can begin to understand Balcon’s interest in vocational skills, it is necessary to reflect on a couple of other major experiences in his life.
One was leaving school at the age of 16 with hardly any qualifications and the other was, decades later, sitting on the board of regulator Ofqual overseeing Michael Gove’s radical reforms to education, which were criticised as downgrading the importance of vocational qualifications compared with the university route.
Balcon, who grew up near Rotherham in South Yorkshire in an upbringing he is happy to describe as “working class”, says: “Those reforms would have made me a failure as a kid because that’s not how I learnt.
“We reflect somebody’s capability based on the number of qualifications they have got but that never worked for me because I left school with a single O-level in woodwork,” he says.
Balcon became an apprentice gas service engineer for British Gas, before later moving to Leicestershire to become a training instructor. By his mid-30s he had become chief executive of the Gas and Water Industry National Training Organisation. Who needs a degree?
He says: “There are lots of people [without many academic qualifications] that have been CEOs, but they have had to fight their way through the system as opposed to working with the system.”
Even after years of experience – including more than 20 years in chief executive positions – Balcon was not convinced that he would be successful in his application for the CITB role because of his background. He said his first thought was: “I’m not the kind of person they will go for.”
We reflect somebody’s capability based on the number of qualifications they’ve got but that never worked for me because I left school with a single O-level in woodwork
“I was conscious I was a kid that left school with very little and became an apprentice and actually those kids don’t get to be a CEO and have a big job like this, and that’s kind of my whole issue,” he says.
Ultimately, he did get the job offer and the opportunity at the CITB was too interesting and too closely linked to his personal mission, to resist. “This was an opportunity to do something on a scale that I’ve not had before,” he adds.
Balcon has been in the role for a year now, so is it living up to expectations? He describes it as “fantastic” and says the positive thing about the CITB is that “everybody wants CITB to work well, it’s a great position to be in to be leading a body that people value and want to get more out of”.
A positive spin perhaps on what others may see as pressure factors.
There is certainly no denying the scale of the challenge for Balcon and the CITB in the current climate. Construction firms are struggling to recruit, with 44,000 vacancies in July to August this year. The CITB itself says the industry needs more than 50,000 workers a year above current levels to meet expected growth.
Throw in the fact that the number of EU nationals working in the UK fell 42% between 2017 and 2020, following Brexit and the pandemic, and there is a real job to do to skill up and recruit in construction.
Faced with a task of this size, Balcon intends to make it clear what the CITB can and cannot do, and it has done some work internally to clarify its purpose.
“There has been a kind of silent revolution taking place at CITB since the beginning of the year. It has been silent because the industry is fed up with CITB reorganising itself – the more time we reform the less we can concentrate on delivering – so we’ve done it quietly, in-house and clarified our purpose,” says Balcon.
And what is that purpose? Balcon says it is to “support the construction industry to have a skilled, competent and inclusive workforce”.
“That’s it, that’s all we are going to do,” he says, almost with a flourish.
The crucial word here is “support”.
He continues: “People think we can do everything and we should do everything, but that’s not the case. I’m a straight-talking Yorkshireman and I think the industry needs to face up to some truths. We can’t do this on our own, it has to be by working together.”
That the CITB will be doing less than previously is not exactly news. The body has shrunk considerably in the past few years.
Its worker headcount now stands at 644, half the figure of five years ago (see graph). Under its Vision 2020 reform programme it has also outsourced administrative functions and closed offices, leaving its sole office in Peterborough as its headquarters. It has also reduced its provision of direct training, selling one of its National Construction Colleges and reducing the size of another.
How the CITB’s workforce has reduced in size
The shift Balcon is aiming for is from an expectation of direct CITB provision to one of supporting employers to get the specific training that they themselves have determined they need.
Balcon uses careers advice as an example. He says: “People often say we should get into schools, but we can’t boil the ocean, this should be an industry thing.
“What we should do is support industry with their training materials, their messages and their content to go out there and present to schools.”
This focus on businesses taking the lead, with the CITB playing a supporting role, can be seen in the board’s new employer network initiative. This summer the CITB launched five pilots of the idea, under which employers are encouraged to work together and identify skills solutions in a local area.
I’m a straight-talking Yorkshireman and I think the industry needs to face up to some truths, we can’t do this on our own, it has to be by working together
“We can address that [the solutions] locally, we can do stuff that employers can’t because of the position we are in. For instance, we can work with further education colleges, we could bring in training providers to address particular needs, or we could bring our grant funding in a way that better supports you. But employers determine – and are empowered to bring back to us – what would address their skills issues.”
While Balcon points out that “every industry” is struggling to recruit at the moment, he concedes that construction is particularly affected because of its “long tail of very small businesses”.
He says that, as you go down the supply chain to small businesses, recruitment methodologies become “less sophisticated” with positions being given to friends or family following “conversations in the pubs”.
He adds: “If you are not in that network, it’s hard to find out where those opportunities are, even though there’s a big skills demand.”
He accepts that this traditional recruitment model is firmly embedded and would be very difficult to change.
CV: Tim Balcon
2021-present Chief executive, CITB
2020-21 Chief executive, Property Mark
2013-19 Chief executive, Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment.
2010-16 Board member, Ofqual
2003-12 Chief executive, Energy & Utility Skills
2000-03 Chief executive, Gas & Water Industry National Training Organisation
1998-2000 Inward investment project manager, Nottingamshire Training and Enterprise Council / Nottinghamshire council
More concerning for Balcon, though, is what is happening in colleges. He says around two-thirds of people starting a further education college course in construction do not actually end up working in the industry. “We have a very inefficient skills system,” he says.
Balcon again comes back to employers and says they need to be better connected to FE colleges and training providers. “If I can to go to a college and say there are 50 employers all wanting bricklayers, ‘can you do something?’… we’ve laid it on a plate for them.”
This level of collaboration – where the CITB plays a role in joining the dots to improve skills provision locally – is only likely to work, one would imagine, if there is a strong and positive relationship between the CITB and the industry.
Interestingly, Balcon seems to think this has not been the case in the past few years. He said the House of Lords built environment committee report earlier this year, which accused the CITB of being ineffective and urged ministers to look at improving the CITB or scrapping it, suggests all is not well.
“It tells us something is not right with the relationship we’ve got with the construction industry,” he says, implying that criticism came from the industry during the committee’s inquiry research.
While he says there is a lot in the report that the CITB should take note of, Balcon clearly feels that the board was unfairly singled out.
He says: “The levy draws down around 0.3% of payroll from employers. You can’t solve the skills crisis with 0.3%. The notion that one body can solve the skills crisis is not going to happen.”
This brings us nicely to the thorny issue of the CITB’s funding model. Two in three businesses backed plans to retain the current levy last year. But this is down on the 76% who voted in favour in the previous poll in 2017.
Balcon implies that here will always be criticisms around value for money. “Some people view us as the taxman and we are never going to win that. You will never get a tax collector with a five-star customer service rating on Amazon.”
What Balcon wants to do though, in his words, is to “evolve the narrative” and find ways of demonstrating the hidden value of the levy to the industry as a whole. For instance, he points to the hundreds of professional standards the CITB has created, the training infrastructure it provides and support for the supply chain.
Balcon says: “Without the supply chain being competent, you will never be able to do your work. We have to get better at explaining what value we create for the levy as opposed to how much organisations themselves get back.”
He says the CITB too often gets “sucked into” debates around the latter.
We have to get better at explaining what value we create for the levy as opposed to how much organisations themselves get back
In addition to working on ways to demonstrate value, the CITB also wants to track outcomes from users of its services better. For instance, last year one million people visited the CITB’s Go Construct website, which provides resources for people interested in a construction career. Balcon says this has risen to 1.2 million this year.
However, the CITB is not yet able to measure outcomes through Go Construct. Balcon says: “I’ll be asking my team at CITB to make sure we put investment in to make sure that, when somebody starts looking at the website, we know who they are and if they need a follow-up. We can capture the right people.”
Capturing the right people is important, but it is also important that the CITB’s professional standards measure the right things. Balcon says these will be refreshed to reflect net zero, for instance.
“One thing we do know is we cannot fill the skills gap just by training more people because there aren’t enough people,” he says. “So we also have to fill the skills gap by being more productive, so that the need for people is lessened.
“And we can only do that by making sure that all the qualifications and professional standards incorporate the right measures so, when we train people, they understand what net zero looks like and they understand digitisation.”
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Finally, as if the twin personal tragedies of losing his wife and daughter were not enough, Balcon also speaks of watching his 30-year-old son Alex cope with schizophrenia and making it to university against the odds. He is now a year two mental health nursing student.
“I’ve watched a young person battle with mental health at the most horrific level and his story is just inspirational in terms of how he’s battled through that and what he’s gone through,” Balcon says.
This has led to him developing a keen interest in mental health and he is supportive of the training of mental health ambassadors in workplaces and sees a role for the CITB in encouraging this.
Balcon spoke to Building for more than an hour, often talking rapidly and excitedly about a topic that obviously means so much to him given his background and experience.
He says: “The CITB job is an opportunity to give kids like me that fabulous opportunity that construction can give them, because construction has given me a lifestyle I would not have got anywhere else.”
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