When it comes to training and skills, the industry has bet the house on the success of CSCS cards. Now a report has revealed that the scheme is hobbled by arguments over who controls it and whether it is working.
the lack of an adequately trained workforce is, arguably, the single most important issue faced by the construction industry. Apart from the fact that skilled workers produce a better product, the question of training underlies site safety, the rush for off-site manufacturing, the use and abuse of immigrant labour and the industry’s capacity to build the hospitals, schools and houses that are needed.
For the past 10 years, the industry has been working on a way of ensuring that workers are skilled: the Construction Skills Certification Scheme, also known as the CSCS card scheme. The goal is to require that, eventually, all workers must own a card before they are admitted to a site – and at present 629,000 workers in 200 trades do. During their lifespan, the cards have incorporated more sophisticated anti-fraud technology and they have won backing from important players, such as deputy prime minister John Prescott. But now this plan is being threatened by a power struggle over who should control the cards: the CSCS board, which owns the scheme, or the Construction Industry Training Board, which administers it.
Last week, an independent report written by consultant Bob Bilborough and commissioned by the CSCS board was leaked to Building. This found that a culture of “mistrust” existed between CSCS and the CITB. This week, the CSCS board, which is made up of employers’ bodies and unions (see right), met to discuss the implications of Bilborough’s recommendations, and to decide where the scheme should go from here.
The first thing to decide is where the balance of power lies between the two interested parties. Ian Davis, director-general of the Federation of Master Builders and part-owner of CSCS, believes that the CITB should be a senior partner. He says: “The CITB has made substantial investment in the scheme and it’s only right that it should play a leading role. It’s now time for the development of a strategic plan to take the scheme forward, and the CITB should be central to this.”
Bilborough does not seem to believe the scheme is being taken forward, and his recommendation is that the CSCS board be given a proper administrative identity. His report points out that at the current rate it will take the industry up to 30 years to become fully qualified. He has called for the scheme’s administration to be completely revamped and for an independent auditor to look at its books. On top of this, he says the scheme needs funding for a part-time chairperson, a physical headquarters and a strategic plan for its medium-to-long-term development.
One of the implications of all this is that issuing CSCS cards is becoming an increasingly lucrative business. Construction personnel have to pay £50 to obtain a card and if the scheme grows as planned, millions of workers will have to buy them – particularly since the scope of the scheme has expanded significantly. An agreement in April has allowed members of the Chartered Institute of Building, the RICS and the Institution of Civil Engineers to apply for the cards, as have trades such as French polishers and installers of curtain blinds and soft furnishings.
A source close to the scheme says that Bilborough has identified its problems and established what the solutions should be, but has failed to identify how they should be arrived at. He says: “The scheme is in dire need of funding; it needs any money it is making to be ploughed back into it, so that it can become bigger, more efficient and more technologically advanced. Bilborough has only slightly opened the way for this to happen. The scheme needs to know how and when it will move forward and there needs to be clear leadership.
“The problem is that the CITB and the CSCS board both want full control. Bilborough would have been better off suggesting a power share. This report has just put a keg of dynamite under the power struggle.”
Here’s what that keg contains.
Bilborough's report has just put a keg of dynamite under the power struggle
Bilborough’s report concludes that the top priority should be a campaign targeted at persuading regional and local government to use firms with CSCS accredited workforces. On top of this, he sets out a plan for an expensive marketing campaign. He diplomatically points E E out that the CSCS logo should be added to all CITB publicity to emphasise the “partnership” between the two. He also recommends a campaign to recruit industry trainees and non-registered holders of NVQs, the qualification needed to obtain a CSCS card.
If the recommendations in the Bilborough report were to be carried out, the CSCS scheme could grow to become the entry requirement for the whole of construction. It wouldn’t solve the question of who pays for training, but it would mean that somebody had to. As such it could become an essential – and lucrative – part of the modern industry. However, there are certain obstacles to overcome first …
The culture of ‘mistrust’
The power struggle at the heart of CSCS is essentially about who controls the scheme’s money. Ten years ago when, it was still at the concept stage, the CITB took on the role of administering it. The board ploughed hundreds of thousands of pounds and thousands of man-hours into CSCS, and had intellectual property rights in the scheme’s health and safety test.
However, 11 months ago CSCS appointed a new chairman – George Brumwell, the former UCATT general secretary. He took over from former Balfour Beatty boss Tony Merricks. It was Brumwell who urged Merricks to commission Bilborough to write the report. Sources close to the scheme suggest that Brumwell and his allies want to take sole control of the card. CSCS would then become self-financing, and its profits would be used to further develop its scope and professionalism. The sources say the CITB wants to keep financial control and to pump the money back into the industry through training grants.
This is at present a struggle in the darkness, because the CSCS board does not have access to its own scheme’s accounts. So it does not know whether CSCS still owes the CITB money from its start-up investments, and a stand-off has developed over whether the scheme has to use the CITB’s copyrighted health and safety test.
This is at present a struggle in the darkness, because the CSCS board does not have access to its own scheme’s accounts
The industry’s much publicised plans to have a fully qualified workforce have been seriously undermined by Bilborough’s suggestion that the industry will not be fully qualified for “two to three decades”. This is despite the Major Contractors Group’s promise that all of its members’ site workers obtain CSCS cards by 2003. It missed the target by 18% but increased membership of the scheme.
The government has also put out guidance through the Office of Government Commerce, recommending that CSCS cards be used by firms winning public sector contracts. However until this becomes compulsory, the CSCS’ power will always be limited. There is no penalty for firms not having a fully carded workforce and no business case has been presented for implementing change.
Bilborough also called for an increase in the number of card checks being carried out on site in partnership with employer organisations.
Last year, Building columnist John Smith embarrassed the CITB by obtaining a card using false documentation (see below). Bilborough believes the rigorous checking of cards at sites is crucial to maintaining CSCS’ standards and stamping out fraud.
At the heart of CSCS is the development of a competent workforce using the NVQ system. However, Bilborough says that the “government has recognised that these qualifications are not performing as well as expected and now plans to implement improvements”. His report says the problems in the UK’s system of vocational training is one of the main barriers to achieving a qualified and cardholding workforce. He calls for a full review of construction training qualifications, with particular focus on integrating older and foreign workers.
There are also fears about the number of different CSCS cards that can be obtained – at present there are nine different cards, depending on which sector the workers is from. Bilborough proposes that these should be harmonised.
The bottom line of the Bilborough report is that the CSCS scheme is hobbled by basic confusions over funding and management, and over whether the NVQs that validate the whole exercise are up to the job. Until those questions are answered, the training issue will remain the industry’s number one problem.
What is CSCS and who owns it?
CSCS aims to register every competent construction operative within the UK not currently on a skills registration scheme. Operatives get an individual registration card, similar to a credit card, which lasts for three or five years. The card provides evidence that the holder has obtained an NVQ and has undergone health and safety awareness training or testing.
CSCS is owned by CSCS Limited, a company controlled by a management board whose members are from The Construction Confederation, the Federation of Master Builders, GMB Trade Union, National Specialist Contractors Council, Transport and General Workers Union and Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians.
Observer members include the Department for Education and Employment, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Health and Safety Executive and the Construction Clients Group.
The scheme is administered by the CITB under a service agreement with the CSCS board. The CITB also owns the intellectual property rights to the health and safety test.
John Smith: Why Bilborough doesn't go far enough
The CSCS scheme issues a range of cards named after metals and colours. There is no titanium card yet – perhaps this is intended for the League of Portly Pusses. Personally, I am the proud owner of a gold card for carpentry and joinery.The one unequivocally good thing about the CSCS has been the safety test; this is the hardest thing to fiddle, and I hope that it is continued and improved. However, the industry has never wanted to pay the true costs of craft training, and the CSCS will not change its mind.
There are a number of ways of obtaining a card, and all are open to abuse. The industry accreditation route is the easiest to manipulate. This allows a company to obtain cards for as many workers as it wants, and last year I proved the point by obtaining a gold card crediting me with skills I did not have, with the help of a firm I had never heard of. The Construction Industry Training Board responded by trying to have me prosecuted. I heard George Brumwell talked them out of this. (Thanks George.)
Even if possession of a card really did prove that a worker had skills, it still wouldn’t raise skill levels, because most site workers have never heard of the card. Do any of the staff of Building hold a Construction Site Visitor Card? And if not, why not?
So, what about the 600,000 cards that have been issued? Well, they last for between two and five years, so many of that 600,000 must be re-issues. Also, many holders will be among the thousands of trained workers who leave the industry every year.
Then there is the industry's thirst for cheap labour, partly satisfied by foreign workers. There was talk of issuing cards to Romanians before they left Romania. Does anyone know how to check those against Romanian NVQs? No, me neither.
Some public sector contracts state that a percentage of workers must hold CSCS cards. But the mass of workers in the industry are now self-employed, many with dubious agencies. Most companies directly employ few people, and there can be more than a 100% staff turnover on a building site in a three-month period. In these circumstances, it is all but impossible to ensure that a certain percentage of workers own cards.
From this perspective, the disagreement between the CITB and the CSCS board seems to me to be a row about the arrangement of deckchairs as the scheme sinks below the waves.
John Smith is a clerk of works