Minister for lifelong learning Malcolm Wicks gave construction executives a dressing-down over the industry’s failure to recruit women and those from ethnic minorities at a conference on further education last week.

Speaking to the largely white, male audience, Wicks said: “Look around this room. There are a few women, but this is a really antiquated picture. This is the 21st century and it has to change.”

Movement for Innovation chairman Alan Crane was equally uncomplimentary, claiming that the industry’s poor health and safety record was responsible for the lack of skilled operatives.

He said: “We have a complete lack of respect for people on our sites, both in terms of health and safety and the conditions we expect them to work in. None of that helps in attracting people and we need to address both issues.”

Wicks and Crane made their comments during a Construction Industry Training Board seminar, entitled Learning to Succeed with Construction, that was a response to the Learning to Succeed white paper on further education. This calls for an overhaul of education for the over-16s in England and Wales.

The CITB estimates that the industry needs to recruit 360 000 construction workers over the next five years to replace workers leaving the industry and to cope with expansion.

The seminar was attended by 200 leading construction figures and government officials, and discussed how to recruit and retain workers.

Crane added that the industry also needed to introduce multiskilling for craft operatives to offset skills shortages.

He said: “We’ve got to bite the bullet and sit down with the trade unions to get multiskilling into the industry.”

George Brumwell, general secretary of construction union UCATT, said the best way to recruit people was to improve working conditions, which he described as appalling. Brumwell said: “We talk about respect for people but the workforce is not treated with respect.

“We have a terrible turnover of manpower in construction. That won’t change until we start treating people on site with greater dignity.”