Can we fix it? By Mark Farrar

10 Nov 08
Construction is the biggest industry in the UK but plagued by a skills shortage. Mark Farrar explains how a new national network is working with employers to improve workforce training — and how the public sector can reap the benefits

11 November 2008

Construction is the biggest industry in the UK but plagued by a skills shortage. Mark Farrar explains how a new national network is working with employers to improve workforce training — and how the public sector can reap the benefits

The public sector is the biggest client of the UK's construction industry, spending more than £40bn on new projects every year, not to mention refurbishment. In recent years, many government offices have become wise to the fact that the cheapest tender received is not necessarily the best. Yet balancing the books is a major consideration when faced with increasing costs. This is alongside pressure to ensure that benefits for the local community – such as job and training opportunities – are factored into the procurement process.

The National Skills Academy network was established by the government in 2005 to provide employers with a sector-specific approach to recruiting and training adequate numbers of highly skilled and motivated workers. This was one of a number of measures designed to enhance the UK's skill base, to enable us to continue to compete on an international business stage. The Leitch Review of Skills from 2005 concluded that the UK skills base was weak compared with other countries – more than one third of British adults do not hold even the equivalent of a basic school-leaving certificate. Leitch warned that without a significant boost to skills levels the country would struggle to keep up with competitors.

Construction is playing its part and there have been promising results since the industry adopted the National Skills Academy scheme, particularly for public sector projects.

Construction is the country's largest industry, employing around 2.5 million people, and areas of skills shortages are well documented. Despite the current downturn, the future looks positive. The Construction Skills Network estimated in September that 42,000 new workers will be needed this year to deliver current and planned projects, and the longer-term picture for the industry is one of growth. Furthermore, evidence from the last recession proves that businesses with highly skilled workers are best placed to survive. Now more than ever it is vital that the public and private sectors pool their efforts to increase the skills of their workforce.

Construction presents some significant challenges. The industry has a highly fragmented workforce with more than 90% working for firms employing fewer than ten people, workers coming together on major projects, and teams frequently moving from one project to the next.

To help address these issues, ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council for the construction industry, has worked with the Learning and Skills Council, employers and education providers to establish the National Skills Academy for Construction network on major construction sites across the country.

Each accredited academy site develops a skills profile for the project workforce, mapping existing skills and qualifications, highlighting gaps, and identifying additional needs for the project. Best practice training is then delivered either on-site, to workers and managers who would be unlikely to venture into colleges, or at regional and local training centres, for apprentices and highly specialist training. As well as exposing non-traditional candidates to training opportunities, this model also gives employees the opportunity to put their training into practice immediately, as they earn qualifications while they work.

It is not just young people who are given training opportunities. Academy projects also offer experienced workers the chance to achieve standards that help them move up the employment ladder, through our On-Site Assessment and Training and Experienced Workers Practical Assessment schemes.

Each site can become accredited to run the industry-standard Construction Skills Health and Safety Test, resulting in a more hazard-aware workforce. Construction industry assessors also regularly visit our projects to assess people for the NVQ qualifications that lead to Construction Skills Certification Scheme cards. These denote the competence of staff at different levels and act as a passport to work on other projects.

For public sector clients, the academy model provides a framework for delivering a range of social and procurement commitments, such as investment in the local skills base, opportunities for local employment, and links with local communities. It provides a blueprint for supporting sustainable community clauses, and often a contribution to Section 106 agreements.

As well as local authorities, primary care trusts have also recognised the benefits, such as at the Pinderfields Hospital development in Yorkshire. So too has the government's Building Schools for the Future programme, with projects in Manchester, Knowsley and Lewisham.

Approval is given on a case-by-case basis, and the initial application can come from either the public or private sector client, developer or the main contractor. ConstructionSkills encourages a partnership-led approach where all parties understand how the model works and the benefits that can be reaped.

The aim is to extend our academy network from 19 projects at present, to 55 in total by 2010, covering the four nations. Support from public sector organisations will be critical to the success of the project – and to extending best practice throughout the industry.

Building the skills base: the Stanhope regeneration project in Kent

One of the earliest sites to be granted National Skills Academy for Construction status, and the first in the Southeast, is Denne Construction's regeneration project in Stanhope, Ashford, Kent. This is a Private Finance Initiative scheme, part-funded by Ashford Borough Council.

The project, which involves the construction of 442 new homes and the refurbishment of 325 existing ones, has been operating as an academy project since October 2007 and has already benefited over 200 people in the local area.

Since October last year, 21 young people studying at school and college have been offered work placements.

Through Denne's partnership with nearby South Kent College, all seven of its students have been offered apprenticeships, and three recent school leavers have been provided with work-related training, including day release to the college. A further 11 apprenticeships were given to young people through other training providers or were brought to the Stanhope project by their existing employers.

Without the National Skills Academy for Construction accreditation and the involvement of employers and on-site training, these places would not have become available. Such is the emphasis on staff training that each contractor working on the site has to take on at least one apprentice each year in order to be awarded work.

Councillor Peter Wood, portfolio holder for housing at the council, says there is a need to ensure that young people have the right skills and training to find employment locally.

'The NSAfC [offers] courses that are tailored to employers' specific requirements, which support the local economy and meet the aspirations of Ashford students.

'The academy model has helped the PFI regeneration project have a positive impact locally. By the [involvement] of local people, many of whom actually live on the estate, the whole area and community has benefited.'

Mark Farrar is chief executive of ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council for construction.

For more information on NSAfC projects, please visit ConstructionSkills support business page


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