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SPEECH BY SIR MICHAEL LATHAM DL
CHAIRMAN, CITB-CONSTRUCTIONSKILLS,
TO BLCF “MAINTAINING THE MOMENTUM” EVENT
8 FEBRUARY 2005

Thank you so much for that introduction, and indeed for the invitation to join you this afternoon. It is a real pleasure to see so many different organisations represented here today, all working towards a common goal.

One of our common objectives is the regeneration of this great city, and this building is a good example of that. First, because it houses three of the great livery companies, including the Glaziers, whose involvement in constructing London goes back to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages; secondly, because the original Glaziers’ Hall was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, which led to the burst of regeneration associated particularly with Sir Christopher Wren; and thirdly, because this building has itself been transformed from a warehouse into its current splendour and entirely different use.

Although Wren’s regeneration was caused by the disaster of the Great Fire, a London crisis we have thankfully avoided since the Blitz of 1940/41 and the VI and V2s of 1944, the range of major projects currently under way in the capital is impressive: from Heathrow through White City and Paddington in the west, through King’s Cross, Spitalfields and out to Docklands and the Thames Gateway in the east. Transport infrastructure, new housing developments, retail and leisure complexes, hospitals and schools: all of this activity represents a great opportunity to build (and rebuild) communities and also good business opportunities for the whole construction sector and the wider London economy.

A positive picture then: but one which presents challenges. Not just to ensure that development is appropriate, both in scale and mix, but also to deliver it. There are many challenges - of finance, and logistics; of ensuring that development is sympathetic to the environment and built on a sustainable basis; and challenges that communities are consulted, not just before development is approved but while it is being built. But perhaps our biggest challenge for the industry, and the one which is at the core of CITB-ConstructionSkills work, is making sure that the right skills are available to construct these developments safely, to the required standard, within the agreed budget and to the desired timetable.

Across the UK, between now and 2010, the construction industry needs to recruit nearly half a million people. That’s equivalent to filling the new Wembley Stadium more than 5 times over. That isn’t a figure that we’ve pulled out of thin air. It comes from talking to employers about their existing skills gaps and shortages and assessing likely future workloads. Within that massive total, some occupations will be in shorter supply than others. But right across the spectrum of the construction industry – consultants, project managers and admin staff, specialists and craft workers on site – we are likely to have shortfalls in the availability of key skills, particularly in areas of high pressure construction activity.

Although particularly acute in construction, skills shortages are widespread across the economy as a whole. That is why the government has decided to create a network of Sector Skills Councils – ours is called ConstructionSkills – in order to tease out and meet the requirements of employers for skilled employees, and then to work with training providers and the education sector to ensure that people enter the labour market to take up the opportunities on offer. We also work very closely with our colleagues in Summit Skills, responsible for the mechanical and electrical sector.

Skills shortages are not just a business headache for employers. They also represent missed opportunities for far too many people, particularly young people. Almost a quarter of our young people still leave compulsory education either with no job at all or to employment which does not offer any training. Later this month the government is expected to publish its proposals to tackle this problem, in the wake of the Tomlinson report, and we await them with great interest.

So what is the industry, and CITB-ConstructionSkills, doing to overcome these skills shortages? One of our main targets is to broaden the appeal of the construction industry. There is plenty to be excited about by a career in construction. It is a very worthwhile career. It does something socially useful. It helps literally to build communities. It regenerates urban areas. It provides a feeling of satisfaction. You can see what you’ve helped to create! It can produce buildings of great aesthetic appeal. But if we’re honest, despite all these plus points, as an industry we’ve tended in the past to be poor at ‘selling’ what we do. That’s now changing. There is greater attention being given to health and safety practices. There is the Considerate Constructors Scheme. There are changing attitudes and better facilities on site. But perceptions lag behind reality, and it takes a long time to shift them.

One area in which we simply must do better is in reaching out to women and ethnic minority communities. Both groups are poorly represented in the industry, and it can become a self-perpetuating cycle. The industry too often looks all white and male. It’s not surprising that puts off women and black or Asian ethnic communities.

Not surprising, but unacceptable. And also poor business practice. It really is self-defeating, when the industry is crying out for new talent, if it continues to fail to appeal to more than half the population. We’re doing a number of things to try to put this right. Through our annual Positive Image campaign, we challenge the stereotypical view of new entrants to the industry. Thousands of events in National Construction Week each year reach out to tens of thousands of pupils of both sexes and all backgrounds. We make special efforts to recruit non-traditional applicants into our own Apprenticeship scheme, run by our Managing Agency. And we provide special help to those who may be considering making a career change into construction later in life, through our STEP into Construction programme.

The industry is changing, and we intend to break through into a virtuous circle of recruitment, attracting more non-traditional groups into the industry. But we are not there yet.

That is where a partnership like Building London Creating Futures comes in. What you have done is to bring together those who want to learn a skill with those who need that expertise. And you have been especially successful at attracting under-represented groups into the industry, particularly from minority communities. I’m delighted that some of those who have found work and learned new skills through the scheme are here today.

CITB-ConstructionSkills has been pleased to support BLCF, not only because it helps to meet employers’ skills needs, and it chimes in with our objective of widening the pool of talent on which the industry can draw, but also because it is a fine illustration of what working in partnership can achieve. The achievements we are celebrating today could not have come about without the active co-operation of all the parties who have contributed to BLCF. Later on this afternoon, I am looking forward to presenting the Construction Diversity Awards, which CITB-ConstructionSkills has sponsored, to recognise some of those who have gone the extra mile to encourage greater diversity in our workforce.

In my role as Chairman of CITB-ConstructionSkills I travel quite widely across the UK. One of the things I try to do is to spread best practice – to encourage one region to try an idea which has worked well in another. Although circumstances differ across the country, we can all learn from each other.

One of my constant themes over the past year has been sustainability. There are a number of successful schemes under the Sustainable Skills for Sustainable Communities banner. I look forward to pointing to what you have all achieved in BLCF as an example of sustainable training at its best. It really is a “win, win” if major development projects not only regenerate a community in a physical sense, but also bring new opportunities to the community which remain long after the specific project is completed.

And it is also a “win” for the construction industry. In a cosmopolitan and diverse city like London, the more the construction industry draws from the communities it serves, the easier it will be to recruit skilled workers. In the not too distant future, I hope we won’t need to celebrate diversity, because it will just be taken for granted, and be normal industry behaviour.

In the meantime, thank you for all you have done – public sector organisations, contractors, employees, voluntary organisations –and are doing, to make this partnership a resounding success and an example to others.

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