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Professional Services’ View of Skills in the Construction Industry

The Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP


Construction Industry Council

Thank you very much, Michael. Can I echo your very positive assessment of the achievements of the past year and congratulate you on your Chairmanship of ConstructionSkills during that year, and say how very much we in the CIC are delighted to be part of this partnership to ensure that there is a well-integrated, holistic approach towards the development of skills, expertise and training throughout the industry covering the whole gamut of the construction industry, including all the professional services.

Now, it is important to put the challenges we face in context. Both within the UK and internationally we are facing unprecedented demands on the built environment. Those demands are driven by population growth, continuing not just here in the UK but throughout the world, and in some areas at exponentially very challenging rates; rising living standards and with that rising expectations; the rapid industrialisation of many formerly undeveloped parts of the world – China and India are the ones most frequently referred to but there are many others too; and the huge challenge of global warming and the need to improve very, very significantly the energy efficiency and sustainability of the developments that we undertake.

Within the UK with a sustained period of strong economic growth, we are seeing continued high levels of demand in both public and private sectors, with very, very ambitious programmes – particularly programmes such as Building Schools for the Future which is designed literally to transform every single secondary school within the country within a relatively tight period of time, and the investment that is going into that is an enormous challenge. There are so many other programmes, and it is not just a public sector issue, this is something that spreads right across public and private sectors together. Internationally where British professionals have traditionally made a very, very big contribution to development, punching far above our weight, the demands from so many corners of the globe are massive and it is essential that we have the capability and the skills to continue to play that disproportionately important role.

This leads immediately to the fundamental question for all of us involved and interested in constructions skills, ‘How do we ensure an adequate supply of appropriately trained personnel to fill the large number and very varied range of jobs which will need to be filled, if UK construction is to rise to the challenge of the coming years?’. There are a number of specific obstacles that we need to face and overcome, and I would like to tackle those in the next few minutes.

The first one remains the image of the industry, and it is one of the more curious paradoxes about construction, I always think, that the public loves the products of our industry but still has an often very negative and pejorative view of the people who deliver those wonderful projects. People love the new buildings, the shiny new structures; they think this is marvellous and exciting, but if you ask them for a view about the construction industry they will probably think about the last time a builder came to do repair work in their house and it probably was not a very happy experience, or they will talk about some of the old images of dangerous sites and dirty sites and behaviour that is not part of the Considerate Constructors’ scheme ethos.

So that is a problem, and it is an historic problem because the image relates to people’s perceptions of the industry as it was, but it is still very damaging to our ability to attract people to come into the industry. This point was brought home to be very forcibly talking a while ago to people involved in an inspirational project in a West Yorkshire city training young people, many from ethnic minorities, in a very disadvantaged neighbourhood, so that they would be able to apply for and obtain jobs in the fairly ambitious regeneration programme that would be taking place in that area. So from every point of view it was a very sensible, very well focused, very well motivated project, but the people who were doing it said the biggest single obstacle they faced was the attitude of the parents of the young people for whom they were trying to create the jobs, because – and remember, we are talking about a disadvantaged area with a lot of people from ethnic minorities - those parents were ambitious and aspirational for their children and they did not want them to go into an industry which they saw as not being a first-choice industry, but a potentially dirty and dangerous industry.

That I think is a very, very telling comment, and unless we challenge those kinds of perceptions and overcome them we will not get what we deserve and what we need, which is the brightest and the best of our children coming through the next generation wanting to work in the construction industry.

This perception partly explains the other paradox of which all of us are very conscious, that we still have continuing high levels of unemployment in certain parts of our cities, and I think particularly of East London. We still have exceptionally high levels of un-employment in certain areas just a few miles to the east of here. Every morning I come on the underground from Greenwich, my constituency, into Westminster; I come in fairly early in the morning and I travel with people of whom none are speaking English. They are not speaking non-European languages, they are speaking Eastern European languages, and when we get to Canary Wharf which is the next stop after North Greenwich, a very large number get out – and they are construction workers going to work and some then carry on into Central London. So there is this phenomenon of a very, very large arrival of migrant workers particularly from Eastern Europe, coming into this country and bringing skills and bringing great abilities - and I have nothing against it, but it is paradoxical that we have this at a time when in some of the areas that we are seeking to regenerate there is still deeply entrenched unemployment among some of the most disadvantaged groups. We have to tackle that, and we have to overcome it.

I believe tackling the image problem is vital, and there are lots of good pointers, and one I will come back to in a moment is based on some of the comments that Michael has made, and also our experience of some of the projects that CIC has been particularly involved with in construction skills which show how you can begin to challenge this.

The second of the challenges we face is to be much more ambitious in reaching out to pupils at an early age in their schooling, to ensure that they understand the very broad range of exciting career options within the construction industry. It is heartening that I believe there is growing recognition of the importance of the construction and built environment at school level, in particular the GCSE courses to which Michael referred, and obviously the development of the 14-19 specialised diplomas.

I am also encouraged by some imaginative innovations being trialled in various areas. In my own constituency of Greenwich and Woolwich, one of our local training providers has been particularly thoughtful in developing ways of attracting disaffected youngsters in school to take part in activities based around principles of sustainability, trying to get them interested in how you achieve sustainability in construction. That in a sense plays to a strength, because you are asking the young generation not to become involved in a perception of what the industry was in the past but what it is about in the future, and that is tackling some of the biggest challenges of our time.

That kind of approach is one which I very strongly support, and I have been particularly interested in the coaching scheme in Newham which has been introduced this year as a CIC ConstructionSkills project at Eastlea Community School, which aims to raise awareness of career opportunities among the pupils in Year 9 in that school, so we are talking about pupils aged 14 or so, putting them in touch with construction professionals as mentors to encourage them to have an interest in the industry and to develop an enthusiasm for it. The project specifically addresses the historic problem the industry has faced in attracting a more diverse labour force; 50 per cent of the pupils are women, and 80 per cent come from ethnic minorities. Okay, it is only a single small pilot project, but if it succeeds – and I believe it is going to – then there is huge scope for following up on that. Talking to Jack Pringle and Mark Way about this a moment ago, we identified one of the difficulties, which is getting a good supply of women mentors so that girls in the school have mentors with whom they can identify, and we have some thoughts on how we can do more in that particular area. These are small initiatives but they are important, and they are addressing this challenge of how you get into schools so that children in an early see construction, in all its aspects, as a potentially exciting career opportunity for them.

Thirdly, we have to be much better at linking training programmes with work opportunities. In the past construction training has too often suffered from high drop-out rates. as trainees either fail to complete the training programmes or fail to find appropriate employment opportunities and drift away to other activities.

The launch last year of the National Skills Academy for Construction - at which I was present and very much endorse Sir Michael’s view that this was a very exciting moment indeed, and the commitment of the Secretary of State and the Skills Minister to it was very heartening – and the creation of project-based training hubs related to major new construction activities, all of these are greatly to be welcomed. The Olympics pose an obvious opportunity, not just because we know there will be a substantial demand for construction employment, and it is important that people particularly from those disadvantaged communities are helped to obtain those jobs and get the training so they can compete for them, but also because this helps to address the image issue that I mentioned earlier. People will have an incredibly positive view - for all the Press in their typical way in this country are doing their utmost to rubbish our capacity to deliver the Olympics – and I have no doubt at all that this will be a hugely successful venture. I know from personal experience in my constituency the overwhelming enthusiasm of young people for this, and if we can harness that enthusiasm and that positive image to the process of construction for the Olympics, that I think helps to tackle the image issue that I have already referred to.

Fourthly, I want to come back to the way of how we increase the flow of entrants into higher education, and there is some good news here. After years of apparently irreversible decline in the number of students enrolling in traditional construction courses, we have seen in the last year or so a real turn-around, and last year’s figures showed a welcome increase in demand for built environment courses including building, civil engineering, architecture and combined courses. Michael has referred to the importance of the Inspire Scholarships, and I very much agree with him that this is a very important development to encourage more people to aspire to take on training opportunities and higher education.

But even so, the levels of enrolment into relevant higher education courses remain far below the level the industry estimates it will require for new professionally and technically qualified recruits in the years ahead, so there remains a big challenge and we cannot simply rest on our laurels. We have to do more to ensure that our higher education courses are attractive and are relevant.

Here I believe we need to be more imaginative in how we promote the industry and the range of opportunities it provides. A recent newspaper article posed the question, ‘Where are the next Brunels?’ based on a report from the Sainsbury Management Fellow-ship bewailing the degree to which engineers were not involved in the management of projects today. ‘Too many projects are run, the report argued, ‘by management teams with a lesser understanding of engineering while engineers are sidelined’. It went on to argue that ‘Brunel was a consummate multi-tasker, well able to handle a huge range of technical and managerial challenges and we ought to be encouraging that today’, and obviously I very much agree with that; but Brunel was a product of his time in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, when ambitious new engineering projects whether those involved railways, bridges, tunnels, ships or whatever, truly excited the imagination of the country.

Today’s cutting edge is much less visible. Today’s cutting edge is almost certainly to do with the internet, to do with the knowledge-based economy. and the dramatic changes and transformations taking place to transform our society are mostly invisible, so I don’t think we should be looking to go back to the great age of steam in our way of looking for the new Brunels. What we need to do is look forward to how we inspire people with those great knowledge skills, with those abilities, with that genius that Brunel demonstrated, who are there and who are doing all sorts of very exciting things in areas that I find difficult to understand – and my children are much better than I at this. How do we encourage them to make the contribution that they have to in our industry on the biggest single challenge of our time, and that is sustainability?

This is the point on which I wish to conclude, because the one theme that has run through what I have said is that if you are encouraging and inspiring young people to think about challenges for the construction industry, the one issue that they will all agree is crucial is sustainability. This is an area where there is massive scope for transformation if we ensure that we harness the skills that are necessary; indeed if we don’t we as a society, we as a planet, are almost certainly doomed. If we cannot change radically the way in which we build and develop an the way in which we create the environment in which we live, in a way which really does reduce carbon emissions, reduce global warming and achieve sustainability, then the future is very bleak indeed.

So we have a huge challenge here which ought to attract the Brunels of the future, and we have huge opportunities in the industry to enable people to show those skills in ways that will transform our built environment. This I believe is inspirational, potentially; this is an area where we have to try and reach out to those many, many young people who have the opportunity to make a huge contribution to our industry, but who currently maybe do not see the industry as their destination.

Putting all of those elements together and reaching out to those young people with an inspiring image of what they can do to transform the industry and transform their society I believe is one of the keys to help achieve our objective of transforming our industry and transforming our society.

Thank you very much. [Applause]

Sir Michael Latham: Thank you, Nick, very much indeed, and may I say that many of us remember with great affection the four years at the beginning of the Government when you were the Construction Minister, and it was greatly appreciated, and thank you very much for talking to us today.

Now please welcome James Wates, the Chairman of the Strategic Forum for Construction and also the Construction Federation. [Applause]

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