Chartered Institute of Building Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Building

Opinion

There’s an obvious link between quality and skills – let’s use that to reform standards

5 October 2020 | By John Edwards

I last wrote an opinion piece for Construction Manager some five years ago on the subject of quality in construction.

At that time, I may have been ahead of the curve; it was in 2015, before the problems of poor quality construction of Scottish schools were revealed in 2016 and the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017. How times have changed: quality in construction is now on top of the agenda and quite rightly so. 

In my experience of inspecting and surveying buildings, I often found it was the more recent work that was at fault for quality rather than original construction. In managing many projects I also witnessed the difficulty in achieving the required quality standards. 

If we join the dots, we can see the obvious link between quality and skills, and if we go further we can see the influence that these have on the health, safety and wellbeing of society – and also climate change. 

Regulatory reform is long overdue and it’s pleasing to see this is now taking place. However, unless we have the right skillset at all stages, from design to implementation, we will struggle to ensure that any regulatory reform intended to improve standards and quality will be consistently implemented.

The climate change challenge means that we will have to make better use of existing buildings and not construct so many new ones. Those involved, therefore, need to have better skillsets in how to work with existing buildings. At the craft end we currently only teach those activities involved in new construction, so this needs to change. 

The need for high skill levels and accuracy is essential, and craftspeople need not just understand what tasks they’ve got to do to reach the required standards, but also understand the implications of not achieving them. Craft apprenticeships need to be longer and more comprehensive, to include education and not just task activities. Those undertaking the design need to properly understand how to improve and adapt existing buildings. 

Deploying the requisite knowledge and skills is so important that it should be part of regulatory reform. Perhaps this is where the licensing of individuals and companies comes in, backed by robust competency certification schemes supported by training in areas where knowledge and skill improvements are needed.

Professor John Edwards is director of Edwards Hart Consultants and professor of practice at University of Wales Trinity St David (and Construction Wales Innovation Centre)

Comments

The drive to reduce up front costs had resulted in a poorly trained workforce, lack of adequate supervision, corner cutting, impossible targets and abdication of responsibility
Yes the classic old style apprenticeships is one step in the right direction but there has to be an acceptance that projects will be more expensive due to additional oversight and input
Also the old time served clerk of works employed by the client would stop many of the transgressions at a stroke. Self certification is a complete joke in all but the very rarest of occasions

John MacKintosh, 5 October 2020

Dear Professor Edwards,

In regard to your comments,

I have for a significant period held the view that we are trading quality out of construction.

We are now in a society where employers aren’t in the business of offering apprenticeships as they once did where a job was believed to be for life.
The cost of apprenticeships is high and for an apprentice to complete training and then move to a different employer is actually a significant loss to a business and so a risk that isn’t taken.

I was fortunate that I was able to undertake an apprenticeship with British Gas many moon’s ago prior to privatisation and that mix of formal classroom training mixed with working experience and personal development was invaluable. Engineers at that time were actually paid extra to take an apprentice with them so as to invest time and energy ensuring that they were trained appropriately. The first of my three years focussed solely on me keeping the site clean, tidy and my engineers toolkit safe and in order. It was a rare occasion within that first year that I would be allowed to pick up anything other than a brush outside of a classroom and that was for me the beginnings of being proud in what I did but also becoming a craftsman. It was also a norm to stop apprentices from moving forward if they weren’t deemed fully competent in any area of training.

From what I have seen in more recent years there aren’t companies really willing to invest in apprenticeships and training courses in the same way and unfortunately the courses on offer are aimed at turning “qualified” people out as quickly as possible with qualifications and accreditations and not at developing people to a significant level of quality that is akin to those required when I served my apprenticeship. I am not running down individuals here because it is a culmination of many events that for me are minimising the investment in quality as a significant part of training and assuming that the completion of a module is the be-all-and-end-all when quite clearly it isn’t.

There is a perfect opportunity here where unemployment is rising significantly due to recent events. Unemployment in 16-24 year olds is going to be a problem but a government funded apprenticeship scheme could go a significant way to redressing the skills shortages we are experiencing throughout our industry.
Pay individuals to attend college in core construction skills.
Fund employers for providing work experience and taking on apprentices.
Build a strong new workforce able to deliver quality work that can be relied upon by home owners and the wider consumer base for years to come.

Invest in our infrastructure and reward employers willing to invest in our youth.

Yours
James

James Shannon, 6 October 2020

There is a link between the reward that the skills provider gets and the numbers of students that ‘pass’ the course.
When the provider is rewarded for the quality of output of students rather than the quantity, that is when we start to tackle the problem.
Could I suggest that John Edwards goes undercover to see how many students that should have failed the course have certificates, how many Site Managers asked to see certificates and how many work on sites without every having formal training.
He will be amazed.
Denis Barry, MCIOB, 6th October 2020

Denis Barry, MCIOB., 6 October 2020

There is a stronger link between attitude and quality.

Because the industry can get away with shoddy work that is what it does.

We keep coming up with vacuous excuses to rationalise why quality is poor but the simple fact is no one gives a toss because there is no downside especially with housing.

The correct link might be that quality is more linked with the moral compass. The lack of that compass is behind so much of what is wrong in the industry: corruption, labour exploitation, bid rigging, and cutting corners with everything, over promising and under delivering, passing the buck and the cladding scandal to name but a few.
No wonder quality is poor with that as the background.

Chris Blythe, 8 October 2020

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