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When I first became an M.P., at the age of 31, in 1974, a distinguished ex-Cabinet Minister, the late Geoffrey Rippon, once said to me, “Michael, you have a post-graduate Diploma of Education, don’t you?” “Yes”, I replied “Well”, he said, “Let me give you a tip. As you are a politician now, never make a speech on education, except to say it is a good thing, and we need more of it. If you say anything more specific, you will upset someone.” Good advice – and I generally adhered to it for 18 years in Parliament. But not today. I will take the risk.

Partnership and working together are the foundation stones of the construction industry. At every stage of a new building there is a need for cooperation. The client and the designers have to know what they want and work together to create it, hopefully with the earliest involvement of the integrated construction team to achieve best practice buildability and value management. All need to understand their role in the project, when they are needed, with whom they need to work and to what timescale. Integrated teams produce quality buildings, to time, specification and cost. It is all about partnership.

So, I am delighted that ConstructionSkills is a partner in, and contributor to, the work of ACBEE. And I am very pleased that ACBEE is taking forward the vital task of creating partnerships between academia and the construction industry to ensure a healthy future for the industry.

How does the work of ACBEE sit with the priorities of ConstructionSkills itself, and thereby jointly with CITB-ConstructionSkills, CIC, and CITB Northern Ireland, as the Sector Skills Council partners, and with the construction industry as a whole?

In simple terms, it sits right at the core of our work. ACBEE itself will never lay a brick, erect scaffolding or design a new house; but it will help us find, recruit and train the people who will. ACBEE is deeply involved in helping the industry close the skills gap, a gap which, unless we act fast, will get wider, as more work comes from both the private and public sectors into an extremely busy industry over the next couple of years.

One of the continuing concerns of the construction industry has been the alleged lack of understanding in academia about what the industry actually needs and how it must be delivered. This is not a one-sided argument. There has been mutual suspicion between academic institutions and the business world for too long. There has been a feeling that neither side recognises what the other believes to be vital and a worry that to produce an effective partnership will require too much negotiation about each other’s core principles.

As one who crosses both sides of this fence – as Deputy Chairman of a large construction company, but also as a Visiting Professor at a new university, and having served as Visiting Professor at two other universities – let me say very firmly that both industry and academia need to work more closely together, and understand each other better.

None of us saw the growth of the skills gap quickly enough. We all thought we would always have a ready made flow of work people who could be trained on the job to take on more skilled roles, as they moved through the industry. The industry did not see how Higher and Further Education could play a role in helping construction attract and train the right people. There was a misunderstanding of each other’s role, and some of it was arguably deep rooted and cultural.

Those tensions and misconceptions are now hopefully behind us. Universities see part of their role, in the post Egan era, as the purveyors of knowledge with a purpose for business and industry. I stress, “Part of their role”. As a history graduate of an ancient university, I hasten to say that I am strongly committed to pure learning for learning’s sake in a civilised society, as Cardinal Newman rightly described in “The idea of a university”. However, in 2005, when business comes knocking, universities are now showing a real readiness to open the doors and welcome them in; and that is a commitment for ConstructionSkills, and myself as its Chairman, as well.

Credit where credit’s due. Some courses and institutions, many individual academics and forward thinking businesses have long recognised the need for universities and industry to work more closely together. But through Lambert and ACBEE, we have now reached critical mass on both sides of the fence.

For our part, on the industry side, we recognise and welcome the role that universities can play in delivering highly educated, exceptionally bright and skilled graduates to our industry. We recognise that we needed to change. We had to open our doors at all levels to new people with new insights, new ideas and new skills. Many would come from non-traditional construction backgrounds, and indeed with non-construction degrees, as is now happening, and that is very welcome.

This is where ConstructionSkills has its core requirement and mission. At the interface between industry, academia and the workforce, delivering skills and training. ConstructionSkills is a new organisation, with a new purpose and one which, as an industry, we should especially support.

ConstructionSkills is a pathfinder, leading the way for sectors across the economy in how business, government and academia can deliver together. As a partnership, we build on well established work to deliver benefits for the economy, for the hundreds of thousands who work in construction and for the millions who rely on us to build their houses, schools, hospitals, offices and the nation’s infrastructure.

The construction industry has led the way in recognising the need for investment in training across the sector through a levy-grant scheme to increase skills. Now, ConstructionSkills is building on that commitment, with public money and government support to deliver one of the first ever Sector Skills Agreements.

The Sector Skills Agreement sets the context, the challenges and the targets and makes the continued progress of ACBEE central to our industry. It has three main drivers, separated into 11 separate project areas. It is an ambitious and far reaching agreement, designed to stretch across the full spectrum of the industry from the smallest sub contractor to the largest building company. But it is also reaches down into the industry, tackling complex issues in a radical way. Each idea and programme is designed to make the industry stronger and more efficient.

The three main drivers are, improving industry performance; qualifying the existing workforce; and recruiting skilled new people to the industry.

To improve business performance, we want to work towards a significant increase in SMEs involved in training. This could be achieved by a trebling of those adopting training plans and gaining IiP recognition. We want a lifelong learning network that encourages people to continue to improve whilst in work. And we want to develop better managers, able to build and manage more efficient supply chains.

We are creating the Construction Productivity, Capacity and Skills Observatory to bring together experts and the best available data from across the country, so as to ensure the industry is ready and prepared for the future. The industry did not see the skills gap coming early enough. That must not happen again. The Observatory will help us to spot what is coming around the corner. It will also have a regional dimension, working locally with RDAs and others. So I very much support the work that ACBEE is doing to create a regional structure.

In order to qualify the existing workforce, we need them to be better trained and understand the benefits to themselves and their industry of new skills. We welcome the growth and success of the CSCS card and its affiliates, and our new programme of On Site Assessment and Training is designed to take training direct to the industry’s workforce, rather than making them come to us.

Along with the excellent work of our National Construction College, we are all involved in achieving a better qualified workforce than before. The Sector Skills Agreement takes us further, through a renewed programme of onsite training and ensuring that the growing numbers of migrant workers in the industry are skilled enough to make their own contribution to the construction programme.

But, it is in the third area that we see the central role of ACBEE and our colleagues in the academic sector really delivering for the industry. That is to ensure that we have a new and steady flow of qualified new recruits to the industry. We want construction to be seen as a positive and enthusiastic career choice. We want to broaden the appeal of construction and encourage entrants from non-traditional backgrounds.

It is most unsatisfactory for our industry and our whole society that only 1% of the construction industry site workforce are women. When women make up the majority of the population, and are fast becoming the majority of the national workforce, we cannot afford to ignore them when seeking to fill our skills gap in construction.

And we need to ensure that it is made as easy as possible for graduates to choose our industry. After years of decline, there is a marked change in the numbers of students choosing built environment courses. Work, here at ACBEE, in individual institutions, through the vision of single employers and with the support of ConstructionSkills, is paying off. But we need to continue to grow that number, because 65% of professional services consultancies say they have difficulties in finding skilled staff.

How are we doing this?

  • We have as an industry used our own money to support a £1m fund to help undergraduates who choose construction courses.
  • We have our own youth careers website at with advice about going to university.
  • We continue to run our hugely successful Positive Image campaign designed to show the construction industry as a career of choice and not just a job.
  • And, in the spirit of partnership, we work with ACBEE and the WISE Campaign to encourage more people to choose construction at a time when they are making educational choices. We are also working to develop standards with colleagues in industry and higher education across Europe, designed to ensure compatibility and transferability of professional skills across the enlarged European Union.

More still needs to be done. The Sector Skills Agreement, signed up to by employers, Government departments and agencies, higher and further education, training providers, and trade unions, commits us all to work together to move forward faster.

The industry needs to sponsor undergraduates, provide work experience places and support the delivery of foundation courses in our further and higher education sectors.

ACBEE and Higher Education institutions need to continue to develop and deliver courses which place the needs of the sector at the centre of the curriculum, both in content and teaching methods.

What we should be aiming for is the right mix of knowledge, skills and understanding. That can only be achieved by close co-operation between the industry and higher education. The work based experience should be seen by all as an essential part of a full educational process, and that requires commitment by both the industry and the educational sector.

If this does not happen, we in industry will have to spend more money and more time on ensuring new entrants really can contribute in a practical way. We will need to make them aware of health and safety on site, and to introduce them to work practices and to other specialist workers so that they understand where they fit in. It would be much better if some of these essential skills and disciplines were already known to graduates as they enter the industry.

And to achieve that, there may well need to be changes in academic funding. So Government must bring its commitment to the table. Ministers need to invest in Higher and Further Education in such a way that encourages institutions to work with employers to provide all round practical experience. We must press for a funding formula which encourages students to leave the classroom and work in the industry, whether on site or in a professional office, developing the practical skills and experience that they will require when they enter the world of full-time work. They need to start to acquire this experience whilst they are still students. Ministers also need to accept that a significant and growing proportion of construction related students are now part-time, which presents serious funding issues for the universities, which need to be met.

We have already reached agreement with the Learning and Skills Council to begin to address funding of the further education sector, as part of the delivery plan for the Sector Skills Agreement. This will not be easy or welcome for some colleges, which are working within the strictures of their funding system.

So there is a message for Ministers here. You cannot expect industry and academia to work together on delivering on your skills and vocational agenda if the funding formula does not reflect modern facilities. This is true of funding students, funding courses and funding institutions, and it is the job of ConstructionSkills, speaking for employers, to send that message loud and clear.

Government wants primary and secondary schools to be rebuilt and refurbished. Government wants new rail and road links built. Government wants new houses for key workers in the South East. Government wants new hospitals to continue to spring up around the country. All that is very good, and the industry is responding. But if Government wants to reach its targets for vocational and life long learning, it needs to support industry and academia in a way that makes it in our interests to work together, rather than be separately concerned about resource allocation and distribution.

That is the required partnership from every organisation represented here today. We need to convince Government that we can make a difference; but Government needs to help us to have a well-balanced funding solution for industry and academia.

However, despite these concerns, much has already been achieved. I give warm congratulations for the progress of ACBEE. I know there will be much more to come.

The case studies developed by ACBEE show real progress and real action, and that is very welcome.

The work with SEEDA and other regional development agencies is key to the Lambert proposals of greater coordination of academia and industry. They are an example to other industries and should be supported. The work in the South East of England is very important, as this is a major growth region for the country and the construction industry.

We will continue to support ACBEE in this and its other tasks. There is no greater praise than to say, if ACBEE did not exist, we, in this room, would have to create it. ConstructionSkills looks forward to a continuing close relationship. We are essential partners, and our mission, vocation and sought-for outcomes are essentially the same. Construction is a great, historic but also progressive and rapidly changing industry. Together, we can make it greater still.

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