National Vocational Qualifications are still poorly understood by many in the industry, but the work-based curriculum can be a good route for career development and gaining a CSCS card.

In the world of construction qualifications, National Vocational Qualifications are something of an enigma. NVQs can lead to a degree-level qualification without stepping foot on campus, but can also be taken by graduates in addition to their degrees. It’s possible to get an NVQ without undertaking any new learning, but impossible if you don’t have a job. Even the students who have embarked on an NVQ admit they themselves weren’t quite sure what was involved (see case studies).

And now even the government seems unsure as to what NVQs are. They are being reviewed by Ofqual, the government qualifications body, as part of a project to rationalise national qualifications from GCSE to post-graduate degrees. The fear is that a qualification that’s now embedded in other construction industry schemes – including the CSCS card system and apprenticeships – will at best be rebadged and at worst removed from the list of nationally-recognised qualifications.

Roy Cavanagh, training manager at Seddon Group, is concerned that the loss of the NVQ will devalue the currency in which so many individuals’ achievements is valued. ‘We invest £4m a year in training and apprenticeship schemes, and we firmly support the NVQ system. Ofqual’s introduction of the Qualifications Credit Framework (QCF) in 2010 could put the future of NVQs into doubt, but we hope that the QCF would encompass everything in the current NVQ system and improve on it.’

First launched in 1986, NVQs are based on accrediting job-related skills, rather than new learning. Candidates are matched with assessors from further education colleges or private training providers, who visit their workplace to assess what they already know and where improvement is needed. The content of NVQ syllabuses is updated regularly to take account of changing practice, for instance on sustainability and procurement.

Students then submit a portfolio, which might include minutes of meetings, method statements, risk assessments, and health and safety plans. ‘Students don’t have to create anything, their everyday work should generate all the material they need,’ says Lance Saunders, director of NVQ assessor CASL Management Development, which works with contractors such as Costain, Kier, BAM, Mansell and Mace.

Most of the 30,000-40 000 construction students starting NVQs each year aim for levels 1 to 3, roughly equating to trainees, skilled operatives and supervisor roles. But every year, around 200-300 students embark on the CIOB and Edexcel-accredited level 5 construction NVQ, a qualification that exempts the holder from the bulk of the CIOB professional review for membership status.

This year, as the credit crunch focuses minds on the value of professional and vocational qualifications, CASL’s student enrolments for construction NVQs have risen by 20%. But Saunders believes it is the link with another industry accolade – CSCS cards – that is driving the increased take-up. As the only accepted route to platinum and black CSCS cards for new managers, many companies are seeing the benefits.

‘Employers can use NVQs as a staff development tool, or as a means to achieve 100% CSCS take-up. When tendering, it helps to have staff qualified by CSCS higher cards,’ says Saunders. ‘We take on a lot of students from SMEs that are trying to get sub-contract work from the majors, but their staff need to provide CSCS cards if the contractor wants to get on a tender list.’

This year, there is a new NVQ syllabus – Construction Senior Management. It combines two superseded qualifications: Construction Project Management and Construction Management. Under the old system, project management covered everything from pre-planning to handover, and was mainly suited to in-house managers at client organisations such as Sainsbury’s or McDonald’s. Construction management, on the other hand, was the sandwich filling in the middle.

The new qualification groups together a number of core study areas such as health and safety, the environment and managing people, with additional study pathways and options an individual can follow to suit their job profile.

Grants for NVQ levels 1-3 are available from Train to Gain, while employers submitting candidates for NVQ levels 4-5 can claim some of the fees from ConstructionSkills after the candidate has completed the course. However, the amount available has been cut by 10% compared to 2008, and the daily rate paid to employers while a manager is on a training course has also been cut by 10%.

This is bad news for training managers such as Rok’s Alison White, who covers the south west region. ‘A level 4 or 5 NVQ costs roughly £2,000 per person, so it’s not something we can put all our training budget into. For that money, I could probably put 30 people through a one-day health and safety awareness course. We get full funding for level 3s and take advantage of that, but it’s not so good for levels 4 and 5.’

It’s also important to note that qualify-as-you-work may not suit everyone. ‘Some people are disappointed that they’re not learning very much, unless you do courses to supplement your NVQ assessment,’ says Tony Willson, managing director of construction training consultant Helmsman. ‘And the way the NVQ is set up precludes some people. By the time they have enough experience to attempt level 5, a lot of people are too specialised to meet the broad base of the syllabus.’

But as the recession continues, it’s likely that NVQs will continue to be a popular option for hard-working, time-pressed construction managers. And it’s also proving attractive for a segment of the population known for having rather more time on its hands.

‘I had rather a cagey call the other week,’ Saunders recounts. ‘The lady I spoke to said the student wouldn’t be able to present evidence for a level 5 NVQ for about a year, and I explained this wouldn’t be a problem. It turned out that he was in prison and due to be released in nine months – the lady I was speaking to was the prison education officer!’

Chris Rudd / Contract Manager / E G Carter

When I started in 2005, I was setting out as a supervisor having been a plasterer. I completed an NVQ3 in Construction Site Supervision in about two years, then did an NVQ4 in Construction Site Management in just a year because I had more time. Now I’m working on an NVQ5 in Construction Management.

When I started, the NVQ seemed very daunting. You have to prove you fulfill certain skills related to different job functions, such as communication, book-keeping or organisation. Initially I thought: ‘I don’t do any of these things in my job and I can’t prove I’ve done that.’ But with guidance from the assessors it becomes clear you do more than you think.

The NVQ really enhances your logical thinking and makes you more efficient at your job. My ability to process documentation and my record-keeping have both massively improved.

I can now identify the things I need to record, and ignore others.
The fact that the NVQ is non-time specific and sections can be completed whenever you have free time is great. I’ve averaged about 10 hours study a month, but if work’s hectic I don’t do anything. I meet with the assessors once a month – but again you don’t have to if you’re busy and they’re always available on the phone. They sign off the sections I’ve completed and at the end of the course I send off all my evidence files for a final verification.

Progressing from NVQ3 through to NVQ5 you find you tackle similar issues, but at a progressively more difficult and involved level. For example, NVQ3 has about six H&S sections, but NVQ 4 has twice that. NVQ3 might make sure you’re aware of H&S procedures on site, but by NVQ5 forces you to take an in-depth look at the construction manager role and makes sure you are aware of all the legislation and make you think about how to implement and enforce H&S procedures on site.

If there’s a weakness with NVQ, it’s with the individual’s self motivation to complete it. After a long day’s work it can be hard to remain determined to learn. An NVQ is a lengthy exercise and a very gradual learning process.

Tracy Hubbard / Buyer / Markey Construction

I started an NVQ4 in Construction Contracting Operations (buying) in the middle of 2008. But I was slightly unprepared for how unlike a traditional exam-based qualifications it is. Everything is linked to work, so you can only really complete the NVQ4 tasks in a work environment.

The NVQ4 is divided into categories – such as health and safety, decision making, and information gathering. You have to fulfill tasks related to each of these while doing your job, then provide evidence for assessment. I had to attend supplier meetings, as well as chair a meeting, then provide proof of attendance. I also had to prepare materials schedules for site and supplier schedules and submit the spreadsheets.

At the end of the course, I submitted a folder with more than 50 pieces of evidence, plus witness statements from managers and colleagues.

The assessor from CASL was very supportive and came to visit me at head office several times to keep track of my progress, suggest new approaches and sign off certain sections. I didn’t find any of the NVQ4 tasks too difficult and the sections aimed at buying and supplier performance I found fairly easy because I’d had experience of them before.

It took me a year to complete the NVQ, but the assessors were very flexible and didn’t set any restrictions on how fast I had to complete it. NVQs can be difficult to get to grips with, but it is fulfilling. Sometimes you don’t realise when you are doing something well, but the NVQ makes it obvious when you are.