Talent, skill and hard work characterise most of construction’s 2 million workers, yet in the past the industry has not formerly recognised their contributions or helped individuals develop their careers. Now companies are waking up to the value of staff and are investing in lifelong training

Where credit's due
Where credit's due

About 55% of people working in construction are not qualified to the minimum industry standard of a national vocational qualification (NVQ) Level 2. CITB-ConstructionSkills has set up a scheme that recognises that although people may not have formal qualifications, their experience means they are competent at the work they do. The on-site assessment and training scheme (OSAT) allows workers to gain a qualification that recognises this experience without them having to leave their workplace. Assessors visit an individual at work, gauge their skills, suggest top-up training if required and collect the evidence to award an NVQ.

Housebuilders on the move

In a related training effort, CITB-ConstructionSkills has teamed up with the National House Building Council (NHBC) to raise training standards in the housebuilding industry. This has led to the launch this month a £2m campaign to train site managers to NVQ level 4.

The campaign aims to take into account the specific conditions and needs of the housebuilding industry. As David Marchant, services manager at the NHBC, explains, there are subtle differences between the housebuilding and general construction industries: “In general construction, powerful clients such as BAA and Tesco insist that their contractors train their staff to a certain standard. In housebuilding, the client tends to be the housebuilder so there hasn’t been the same driver for change. By supporting employers to train site managers we’re hoping to provide that driver for improvement.”

In the past it's been difficult to get housebuilders to make this kind of commitment

David Marchant, NHBC

The idea is to acknowledge the pivotal role played by site managers in housebuilding. Marchant says: “Housebuilders are reliant on subcontractors and it’s often site managers who have the responsibility of ensuring the work subcontractors do is of the correct standard. So, at least to begin with, we are concentrating on this group.”

CITB-ConstructionSkills and the NHBC will provide grants for employers to train managers to NVQ level 4 over the period it takes for the individual to reach the standard, which could be anything from six months to two years. The training would involve some college study to cover aspects such as building regulations, but most of the coaching and assessment would be carried out on site. The NHBC will expect the firms that receive funding to raise skill standards in the supply chain. So housebuilders will be asked to commit to employing subcontractors that carry CSCS cards.

“In the past, it has been difficult to get housebuilders to make this kind of commitment. There’s a lot of work out there at the moment and subcontractors can chose whom to work for. If an individual housebuilder says it requires subcontractors to carry a CSCS card, the subcontractor will just move on to a different site. By getting a raft of major housebuilders to insist on CSCS cards, individual firms don’t feel they are at a disadvantage,” says Marchant.

Site managers will be tracked after they have completed the training so that the NHBC can assess what practical difference it makes. Each year, the NHBC inspects 750,000 sites, inspectors will check up on the progress made by site managers as part of their usual site inspection. The scheme is set to run for the next five years.


Through SSA consultations, federations in the Qualifying the Workforce Steering Group have reaffirmed their commitment to driving the initiative forward. In addition, the Major Home Builders Group (MHBG) has also committed to this initiative.

OSAT facts and stats

About 75,000 people have signed up for the scheme and 26,300 have achieved NVQs. But a staggering 410,000 workers still need to become qualified.

Last year, ConstructionSkills worked in partnership with the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to expand the scheme so that an additional 9000 workers could be registered on the scheme.

ConstructionSkills is currently negotiating a further increase in funding from the LSC to further expand the project.

Case Study - Onsite training in action: Leeds College of Building

Leeds College of Building has a lot to be proud of. It established a dedicated OSAT department just two years ago and already has 200 construction workers registered on the scheme. And in October 2003, as a mark of its achievements across all departments, which together teach 3600 students, the college was awarded Centre of Vocational Excellence for Construction by the Learning and Skills Council.

Paul Carter, OSAT and distance learning manager, says he's passionate about the scheme because it recognises people's experience as construction workers and could potentially reduce accident rates because it identifies and fills gaps in people's knowledge. "I strongly believe that the scheme has the potential to improve working conditions and hope it continues to expand," he says.

However, Carter says some workers are apprehensive about joining the OSAT scheme. "Some have been doing their job for more than 20 years and can't see the point. So it's important to build up a rapport with people and explain you want to recognise their skills, not tell them what to do or criticise. Most come round in the end," he says. There can be benefits for workers who go through OSAT. According to Carter, some firms offer a small pay rise or more responsibility to those who gain a NVQ. Others are just pleased to gain what might be their first ever qualification.

The only blot on the horizon is the lack of funding for the scheme. Carter says: "There's a huge demand for skilled tradesmen and for our courses, but we are limited – because of money – as to how many people we can take on. That's a real pity."

How does OSAT work?

Once a company or individual has expressed interest in gaining a vocational qualification, Carter or one of his team of 12 assessors will meet the construction worker on site and explain the OSAT programme. The idea is to assess the individual’s skills against the criteria of NVQ level 2 and if there are any knowledge gaps, create an action plan for filling them. The assessor will then collect evidence such as photos of finished work, testimonials from supervisors, City and Guild certificates or apprentice documents to prove that the worker meets NVQ 2.

On average, the process takes six to eight months, although the worker has a total of five years to complete the programme. It costs £500, but the worker or employer can apply to CITB-ConstructionSkills for a grant to cover the expense. Often the worker will also apply for a Construction Skills Certification Scheme card. Carter says this is a significant attraction for some workers. "A CSCS card allows a worker to work on sites for the larger contractors who insist their employees have one," he says.