11 July 2018
The Government launched a £22 million Construction Skills Fund. Designed to fund on-site training to allow learners to apply their knowledge in the real-world, it is an admirable initiative. But is it the right thing to do? Is the funding going to help the skills shortage we are facing or are we focussing on just part of the problem?
The fund was announced by Skills Minister Anne Milton. It will see contractors, local authorities and housing associations apply for the funding that will see the creation of 20 on-site hubs. Applicants have just eight weeks to get their submissions in with the winners being announced in the autumn. The initiative, administered by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), will then run for 18 months.
The reason for the initiative the Government claims is so that we have the skills to deliver the 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. No one is doubting that we have a skills issue. The fact that we have an ageing workforce is recognised – we are facing losing tens of thousands of experienced workers over the coming years.
To make matters worse, Brexit isn’t helping. The ONS (Office of National Statistics) recently released figures that showed that an average of 2.2m people worked in the industry between 2014 and 2016. Of those workers, 7% were from EU countries and a further 3% were non-EU. Add in the fact that almost half of British nationals in the industry are aged 45 or over and the challenge is clear to see.
So on face value, the Government Construction Skills Fund looks like a great idea. However, I fear that it will only address part of the problem. The big problem is that the construction industry is not a sector that offers appeal to many young people. We use to have master builders – people that were proud of their craft. Over time we have lost this and been left with an image of an outdated, unimaginative and uninspiring industry. For those that work in the sector, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth.
So whilst the fund will create 20 on-site hubs where people can gain skills, we need to think about how do we make this an attractive proposition? How do we get to the people that would really benefit from this opportunity? And how do we make sure we are choosing the people that can add the most value to the industry? How do we make sure it is inclusive and it appeals to all, regardless of age, sex or race?
The industry is so diverse and offers so many opportunities. Training and education are so important, one reason that organisations such as CABE put it so high on their agenda. And once you have started on a career path, there really is no restriction on where you can end up.
But it all comes down to that initial contact. How do we persuade young people that the construction industry can offer a long and fulfilling career? How do we convince those that are unemployed that it is a suitable entry pathway? How do we reassure an older generation that the industry is the perfect place for a career switch? There is no simple solution. Our strength is almost our weakness – the industry has so many different career opportunities that it is difficult to explain to someone what it offers.
My hope is that the Construction Skills Fund acknowledges that we need to work on the image of the industry and that we can just create the opportunities and hope that people come. We need to put time and effort into communicating why the opportunity should be seized upon. We also need to make sure that this initiative is a success and that it stays around for much longer than its planned 18 months. CITB has the perfect experience and resources to make this a success but we need to make sure we have the numbers to make it work and that we record the success and track how many of the participants pursue a full-time career in construction. By telling their story we will go a long way in helping to educate others.
Changing the image of construction is going to take time. We also need to think about the gender pay gap and how we can make it an inclusive industry. We are on the right path. Training and employment can offer a viable alternative to study and workplace.
I hope the on-site hubs are a huge success. They will need the industry’s support to make them work and we need to ensure they are a long-term proposition not a short-term numbers game. The proof will be in the results – how many people we can provide on-site skills to and how many find full-time work. We’re creating the opportunities, let’s just hope they come.