Chairman to consult on making skills body more commercial

Public sector skills body CITB-ConstructionSkills is drawing up plans to launch a separate commercial training business next year to compete with private sector training providers.

CITB is consulting with the government and industry on the move, which would spin out some of the body’s training functions into a separate private entity.

The proposal, referred to internally as Programme Orion, was backed by the CITB’s board in a meeting before Christmas, James Wates, CITB chairman, told Building.

He said: “This proposal will allow us to be more commercial and more agile in terms of competing. [Organisations] need to be agile or you get left behind.”

He added the organisation had been frustrated in its efforts to modernise its training services due to “civil service bureaucracy” and the coalition government’s moratorium on public sector bodies increasing spending on IT upgrades and marketing.

The CITB, which trained 23,364 workers in 2011, would run the commercial entity on a not-for-profit basis and plough profit back into further development of its services.

The launch is conditional on government and industry backing and the successful completion of a consultation process with staff, expected to begin in the autumn.

Skills downgrade

Wates, who is also deputy chairman of his family’s Wates Group, also hit out at the government’s downgrading of over 3,000 vocational qualifications in January.

Wates said the downgrade was a “concern” and could lead to firms “losing the confidence” to invest in vocational training, including the government’s University Technical Colleges (UTCs) initiative.

Building reported last month contractors including Wates and Balfour Beatty were concerned the government’s downgrade could undermine the viabilityof a raft of 19 UTCs set to open by 2014.

UTCs are private-sector-run schools offering a range of vocational and academic courses to 14-to-19-year-olds. Nine firms - including the Shard, Balfour Beatty, Mace and Wates - have signed up to run UTCs.

Wates said: “We want to see strong commitment from government [on UTCs]. The construction industry is providing the commitment, they need to do the same.”

Further reform

Wates also said he was committed to further reform of the construction training levy, after Parliament approved the continuation of an amended levy for a further three years last month.

Roughly half of the CITB’s income comes from the training levy, which is a mandatory charge paid by the majority of construction firms.

The CITB has reduced the levy payment for all employers whose salary bills are between £80-100k by half to “lessen the financial burden” on smaller firms.

Wates said the move was part of a concerted push by the CITB to improve its relationship with SMEs.

He said: “We’re putting a big emphasis on small businesses. They often feel like they don’t get a fair shake [at CITB] but we’re making every effort to put that right.”

He added the organisation had significantly increased the number of visits its business advisers had made to small businesses.

Last year its business advisers met with 18,000 employers, the majority of which were SMEs, to discuss their trainings needs.

Wates added the CITB was developing courses to train people up in the skills necessary to take part in the Green Deal retrofitting scheme and said the organisation’s focus was again on SMEs. Wates expects SMEs to be the “biggest beneficiaries” of the Green Deal.

He added he was pleased CITB had achieved an increase in backing for the levy in 2011, with 85% support, up from 79% in 2010.

Wates said he was encouraged firms were continuing to invest in training, despite the tough economic climate.

He said: “The good news is the industry is still training – firms recognise they need the skills for when the market recovery comes.”

Wates on CBE reaction

Industry grandee and Tory party donor James Wates said he was “very disappointed” by the media backlash to the government’s decision to award him a CBE in the New Year’s Honours list.

The Sunday Times ran a front page story questioning the award as Wates had donated £175,000 to the Tories since 2001.

Wates said: “I was very disappointed. It overlooks what the industry does and what Wates does.”

Asked whether he thought his donation had had an influence on the award, he said: “I don’t think so.”