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Employing the homeless – why it has to make sense

Keynote speech by Sir Michael Latham, DL, Chairman, ConstructionSkills

Building Centre, London, WC1, 9 May 2007

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I’m delighted to be here today to support the excellent work of CRASH and the Construction Youth Trust – of which I am proud to be President - in organising this conference. As the Chair of ConstructionSkills, the Sector Skills Council for the construction sector, I’m also hoping to offer our insight into the issues around employing the homeless, and generate food for thought about the best ways forward.

The aim of the conference is not about general discussions and useful pointers, but enabling all parties to get actively involved in tackling this issue. Over the course of the morning, employers and homelessness organisations will have the opportunity to come together to discuss the individual considerations and approaches that work best for them, and hopefully find solutions and develop new partnerships. Today is not just about re-treading old ground. It’s about establishing a real outcome in terms of momentum for change.

Especially important to informing this process are the results of the new scoping report, Improving Homeless People’s Access to Construction Jobs, by Off the Streets and into Work, and all of you should now have received a copy of it. Commissioned as part of the Tackling Multiple Disadvantage in London by improving employability project, the report has been produced in partnership with the Department of Communities and Local Government, CRASH, the Construction Youth Trust, Homeless Link and ThamesReach, and has the support of ConstructionSkills, the European Social Fund, Argent, Balfour Beatty and Equal. The key information which the report provides on the construction sector, the needs of the homeless and homelessness agencies, and the wide range of best practice examples, should be invaluable to all discussions this morning, and show that a successful way forward is more than possible.

However, that way forward will be difficult without frankness and understanding between all parties. To achieve this, we need to acknowledge from the outset that we have at least two constituencies at this conference – industry and homelessness agencies – who may each hold an inaccurate stereotype of the other. Amongst the industry, there may be false assumptions about the real barriers which homeless, and formerly homeless, people encounter. Amongst the homelessness agencies, there may be a sense that action in this field is about charity or about outdated skills needs figures. In order to move on, these misconceptions must be aired and then corrected, to allow all parties to work together productively.

This is especially important as the opportunities are clearly there for joint working to succeed. The current labour force predictions from our own Construction Skills Network show that industry output is set to rise by 10.8% by 2011, through projects as diverse as the Olympics and the widening of the M25. This means that, simply to service current predictions, the construction industry needs to recruit over 87,000 people every year for the next 5 years.

We cannot possibly do this without looking to the widest possible pool of applicants. ConstructionSkills has been campaigning for some time to encourage more women and ethnic minority groups into the industry, as well as encouraging major projects and contractors to look to the local labour pool for their skills needs. For example, our recently announced National Skills Academy for Construction is now in the process of being set up at 30 major construction sites around the country. It aims to create at least 10,000 local jobs via apprenticeships, as well as help 100,000 experienced workers gain NVQ Level 2 or 3 by 2010.

Bearing all of these pressures in mind, there is room for the current or recently homeless to be part of that widening labour pool. However, this is not something that can be treated as an automatic ‘given’. In some ways the skills gaps can mislead. Yes, we do need radically to increase the number of new entrants; but the construction industry is not simply a low-skill industry that can accept any individual, regardless of skill level.

What’s more, the breadth and nature of the industry, and the range of skills shortages, are often overlooked by those who see construction as the obvious industry for all those without current employment. The construction industry is made up of a range of different sub-sectors, from new build housing to repair and maintenance of heritage properties, and each sub-sector has different labour requirements and, most important, a different capacity to absorb new entrants. For example, although one of the areas with the biggest skills gaps is wood trades, such as carpentry and joinery, which can be learned through apprenticeship schemes and full-time college courses, one of our other greatest areas of need is for managers, architects, engineers and design and technical professionals. Many of these roles require graduate level education, as well as on the job training.

It’s also a sad fact about construction, which we constantly fight against, that labour shortages don’t necessarily equal increased new entrant training opportunities. The industry itself is extremely fragmented, consisting largely of micro-businesses and sub-contractors, which makes traditional recruitment complicated. Despite our innovations as a Sector Skills Council, such as the National Skills Academy for Construction, and innovative new ways to help businesses take on an apprentice, we still have many more apprentices apply every year for a new entrant place than we have businesses willing to support them. For those over 19, the situation is even more difficult, with government funding for Adult Apprenticeships still being limited – another situation that ConstructionSkills is campaigning hard to change.

This mismatch between supply and demand also comes at a time when the construction industry is, rightly, increasing its level of professionalism on site, and closing its doors to those who do not have appropriate qualifications. The Major Contractors Group now insists on all staff on site having an appropriate skills card, requiring professional and health and safety qualifications. The Major Home Builders Group and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association are on the same road. And those firms which take on unqualified labour are not those which most homlessness agencies would want to be placing their clients in.

All of this means that the commercial advantages for construction employers of recruiting and training homeless people are not necessarily as influential as one would expect. Larger companies in the sector, who are particularly involved in Corporate Social Responsibility issues, make up a relatively small proportion of the workforce.

But we should not be negative. Issues such as sustainable communities are very important, and there is a continued desire from the industry to be a socially responsible contributor to the national and local economy. This means contractors and clients are increasingly looking to provide employment for local people, and address diversity issues, in order for their projects to leave a lasting social legacy. The Olympic development should be a prime example of this. ConstructionSkills will be central to delivering the construction skills and training commitments made by many organisations. This will help ensure that the Olympics and Thames Gateway developments will provide training and employment opportunities, creating long-lasting benefits for local communities in East London.

Also, many homelessness organisations have additional leverage on a local level, as they themselves are owners, builders or maintainers of housing or commercial stock. By taking this into account when thinking about progression routes for their beneficiaries into the construction sector, opportunities can be greatly increased, especially in terms of training people to enter sectors such as housing repair and maintenance. The additional benefit here is that repair and maintenance requires workers trained in multiple skills but to a more basic-level, which makes it more accessible to new entrants. A maintenance qualification exists in recognition of this need.

All of this means that, for the well-positioned homelessness agency, particularly those near to major developments, there are real opportunities for improving the access of the homeless to employment. However, to make these opportunities concrete will require the breaking down of stereotypes of the homeless commonly held by many employers – and a realistic assessment of candidates provided by homelessness agencies.

From an agency perspective, those placing candidates must appreciate that, where there are entry-level jobs, those placed in them will require an ability to work as part of a team, as well as having aptitude and application. The Off the Streets and into Work research study contains enlightening information from employers who have worked with homeless people. One of their biggest concerns is the potential lack of work-readiness amongst candidates. Core skills such as communication, reliability and teamwork are vital in an environment that can be both dangerous and demanding. Homelessness agencies should look to ensure that their candidates are fully supported in this.

However, just as big an issue are the many misconceptions that construction employers hold about homeless people. It is vital that as an industry we overcome the stereotypes that all homeless people are unmotivated and demanding; or that they have become homeless because they have little ability and have spiralled downwards through addictions. Many of the homeless, or former homeless, are ready and eager for work, and may have general ability or specifically useful past experience – for example, time served in the armed forces. They may also already have a relevant education. For example, of the 680 young people being supported and housed in a relatively long-term way by Centrepoint, approximately 16% were already in education or training when they arrived, and about half of these complete their course and gain their qualifications while they are resident there. This is promising from both sides.

Bringing people together at conferences such as this is a first step in terms of breaking down these misconceptions. But the best way to overcome these stereotypes is through successful projects, which show the benefits of employing homeless people, not just out of altruism, but as a professional and commercial decision.

Later this morning, you’ll be hearing about some of these successful projects from the Esh Group, the Tyneside Cyrenians and Bovis Lend Lease. There are also a range of projects in the OSW research report which you have before you. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. The Construction Youth Trust, which ConstructionSkills has supported since 2004, run a range of projects aimed at the unemployed in disadvantaged or under-represented groups. They include the Street Works Diversity project, which has allowed young women in Westminster to gain experience as highways and public lighting apprentices; or the regeneration of Sandfields, where a whole community approach has been developed for skills. ConstructionSkills has also been involved in the Building One Stop Shop project, located in the Wembley site of the College of North West London, which has done great work in enabling local unemployed people to gain long term sustainable employment.

ConstructionSkills has also been working in partnership with the Housing Forum for the past two years, using social housing refurbishment demonstration projects to train local disadvantaged people. We have already built up a lot of knowledge and best practice in this area.

It’s truly inspiring that work such as this is already taking place across the country. The results of these projects show that, when they work together, the construction industry and homelessness agencies can deliver against mutually beneficial aims.

And as a Sector Skills Council with a strong commitment to diversity and local training and employment, ConstructionSkills is more that happy to help support these aims wherever we can. Whether that’s through providing accurate skills data through the Construction Skills Network, incentivising businesses to take on new entrants through our Grant support and Company Development Advisers, or acting as an expert adviser and skills broker, we’re always interested to hear more about these innovative projects on the ground and help to spread best practice.

We’re also using our influence at government and funder level to help widen the potential recruitment pool - supporting, with the Learning and Skills Council, an Adult Apprenticeship pilot with a target of achieving 30% female and 10% ethnic minority entrants; and calling on national and local government to use its role as a construction client to drive the recruitment of under-represented groups.

I hope that my introduction has given you some food for thought for your workshops this morning. It’s only by openly discussing the issues from both sides of the argument that we will be able to move forward productively together. I look forward to hearing about the outcomes of the rest of the conference, and hope to be able to share with you on other occasions many more successful examples of homelessness agencies and the construction industry working together.

I shall now hand you over to Esh Group and the Tyneside Cyrenians to tell you more about their truly inspirational partnership. Many thanks for your time, and best of luck for a productive day.

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