Let’s not blame the careers advisers
Site engineer Clarissa de Waal MCIOB asks whether a career in construction trades is as attractive as we like to think.
There is a sort of “seize the moment” fervour among construction policy makers at the moment as they recognise the bi-fold opportunity of eliminating large numbers of NEETs (young people Not in Employment, Education or Training) while simultaneously filling a growing construction labour gap.
Last week’s No More Lost Generations report follows recent criticism of careers advice given in schools which is deemed to be unjustifiably negative in relation to construction. There is also a drive to get employers to engage with schools – to convey the breadth of career opportunities available in the construction industry and also the stimulus and job satisfaction that can be gained from it (see previous story here).
But just how inaccurate are the careers advisers being with their negative attitudes? On the one hand we hear that the industry needs to spread the word regarding the career fulfilment and opportunity available. On the other hand, the majority of existing site workers do not want their children to follow in their footsteps – surely a very tell-tale fact? One factor accounting for this apparent inconsistency is that the majority of industry contributors to the dialogue are from main contractors, ie management companies. Clearly they have a very different perspective to that of manual workers, often self-employed and with considerable employment uncertainty (4 in 10 of the current two-million-strong workforce are self-employed).
So perhaps we should question just exactly what we are offering to those that we entice into the industry, particularly at trade level. As things stand, they will be filling the labour gap, but by no means addressing the skills deficit. No More Lost Generations points out that 78% of construction apprenticeships end at NVQ 2 level. With a strong health and safety bias, this training may well serve to reduce contractors’ insurance premiums, but cannot possibly communicate trade knowledge to a level necessary for competence, independence and efficiency. Nor are they a route likely to fulfil ambition and aspiration.
That this level of qualification is considered worthless by employers is reflected by the fact that “green card” (unskilled) labourers vastly outnumber “skilled” workers in NVQ 2 level occupations – concrete occupations, ground works, cladding and timber-framing all being examples. It might be argued that these occupations do not warrant greater depth of knowledge, but the quality and delivery issues typical on construction sites today, however, would not support this assertion. It is greatly evident that more knowledge – a greater understanding of correct and incorrect construction – would hugely improve output. After all, these very quality issues are one of the key factors giving the industry a bad name and deterring potential recruits.
Even the traditional trades – which at least do follow through to NVQ level 3 – have flagged. Qualification has degenerated into a box-ticking exercise with very little appreciation of the level of competence that a truly time-served apprentice used to achieve. Many would argue that the only true remaining tradesmen are those who were trained over 40 years ago and are now nearing retirement.
Construction apprenticeships today are inadequate – aptly summed up in the Richard Review as lacking rigour. The perceived value of apprenticeships has faded, both as viewed by the employer and by the prospective apprentice. And this is fully reflected by the low numbers of construction apprentices lamented in the No More Lost Generations report. The structure for apprenticeships is simply not there: the industry relies principally on companies with less than 10 employees to deliver its new skills. The long supply chain of subcontractors that has become the norm in the industry makes it considerably harder to develop a suitable training infrastructure.
Fortunately the CITB goes a long way to assisting these all-important subcontractors with a Robin Hood-style redistribution benefitting small firms with PAYE labour in particular. And we must not overlook facilities such as the National Construction College – an enormous asset to the industry. But can the CITB and its collaborators deliver on time? Before an upturn from recession steals away this bountiful labour pool, and before the remnant of skilled workers needed to pass on their knowledge have retired?
The issue that needs to be addressed so urgently is the upgrading of construction trade qualifications to produce well-rounded, self-driven tradesmen. We need to raise the quality of training to a level parallel to that perceived in Germany and Switzerland. We need construction apprenticeships to be regarded as a career path equal to that of university education – something to be aspired to and not just something to drift into.
Commercial pressure on subcontractors working on price and the fact that unskilled labour has been brought in to fill the skills gap mean that poor quality output is becoming the norm in construction. We run the risk of accepting this norm rather than addressing it. But this means that workers cannot hold their heads up high and be proud of their achievements. Improved skills will permit self-esteem and the job-satisfaction that goes with it. And perhaps then, site workers will finally want their children to follow in their footsteps.
Clarissa de Waal BAHons DipSurv MCIOB has 16 years of site experience, and currently works with Ramboll UK as a resident engineer for Cambridge University projects. She trained as a CITB Construction Ambassador in 2005 but feels that we need a revolution in construction education before she can ethically promote construction to the young talent the industry needs.