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Speeches and presentations

National Highways Best Value Benchmarking Club

Autumn Conference

Churchill Museum, London, 17.10.07.

Speech by Sir Michael Latham, DL,

Chairman, ConstructionSkills

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am glad to be with you at the Autumn Conference of the National Highways Best Value Benchmarking Club.

I am also grateful to you for your kind invitation to make the keynote address. Firstly, because I wholeheartedly support the work of the Club in establishing best practice and generating continuous improvement. Secondly, because the topic of my speech this morning – improving performance through training – is both a subject close to my heart and one of the central roles of ConstructionSkills, the Sector Skills Council which I chair.

It’s also a topic that will become increasingly relevant because the recent pattern of industry growth looks set to continue, at least for the next few years. The research of our Construction Skills Network indicates that we are involved in a period of significant annual average growth, with infrastructure and repair and maintenance substantial contributors. Over the next ten years, the industry will be called upon even more strongly to complete the high profile projects currently under construction. Each one of them is unique and iconic in its own right. Within the highways sector, there is a particular demand to respond to the UK’s major requirement for improved infrastructure, recognised by the Government and other major clients.

Large-scale projects such as the redevelopment of Portsmouth Town Centre, the Huntingdon upgrade of the A14 and the M1 extension programme will all need delivering to time, to budget and with a high degree of professionalism. This challenge will only be met if we have a workforce which, at all levels, can deliver a world-class product. Training will be absolutely central to this, both for our existing workforce, and for the thousands of new recruits needed by the sector every year.

It’s also thanks to the large-scale nature of these projects that the industry currently has such high visibility with the government. Skills are firmly back on the Government’s radar, and that is very welcome.

The Leitch Review of UK Skills highlighted where we are in terms of skills and productivity. For basic skills, for graduates and for higher level management skills, Leitch made clear recommendations about where we need to be to compete in the global economy and what we need to do to get there.

More recently, in his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference, the Prime Minister talked about the growing competition from two billion workers in India and China. He made it clear that we must unleash all our talent to remain world players.

The Leitch Review also made clear recommendations about the role of employers in skills and training provision. It stated that there is a clear responsibility on employers to invest in the development of staff. These recommendations have recently led to the announcement of the Skills Pledge, encouraging employers to sign up to a voluntary code of best practice around skills and training.

In terms of Government funding to support these initiatives, much is being channelled through Train to Gain. Still in its infancy, we expect to see changes in terms of its scope, to increase its effectiveness across the industry.

Key to aligning our industry with the national drive around skills, and making the most of the government initiatives and funding on offer, will be ensuring that we are delivering the high quality recruits which the industry needs. This is why one of the key roles of ConstructionSkills is ensuring the industry has a fully qualified, competent and safe workforce.

Recruitment is not just simply a matter of playing the numbers game. For the industry to succeed at such a demanding time we will need new people, committed and talented. We need a home grown workforce that helps to build not only a sustainable construction industry, but also sustainable communities. A workforce that will provide a lasting legacy of people with the skills to work in the industry and look after and improve their own local environments. It must also be a workforce that makes use of the talents of all UK citizens, regardless of age, gender of ethnic background. Otherwise, we will not succeed in recruiting the volume of people we need.

The highways sector, along with the construction industry as a whole, has always struggled to attract a diversity of employees which accurately reflects the UK’s population. Currently, the construction craft workforce is only 1% women and 3% ethnic minorities - yet, within ten years, ethnic minorities will make up one half of the growth in the wider UK workforce and women are already becoming the majority.

As a wider industry, we’ve been trying very hard to address these demands. For some years now, we’ve been running the hugely successful Positive Image publicity campaign, designed to show the construction industry as a career of choice for young people, and not just a job. The campaign has recently adapted its focus to attract women and those from black and minority ethnic groups into the industry – aiming to communicate the benefits of a construction career to those most discouraged by its image of an all male and all white workforce. The campaign has included everything from TV adverts to advertising in the changing rooms of popular women’s clothes shops like Miss Selfridge.

We’re already starting to see the impact of this work in terms of the interest amongst young people in construction as a career. We have actively promoted highways related careers such as civil engineering, surveying, plant and town planning as part of our campaign activity. There has been some success, but there is still much to do.

We are also looking to support the civil engineers, surveyors and planners of tomorrow by showing those young people who are keen to go to university that construction and the highways sector have opportunities for them as well. This work aims to support the work of the HTMA and organisations such as the CIC and CECA to make the sector more attractive, partly by showing that highways maintenance has many more roles than simply the more visible site-based trades.

This drive is backed by a £1million sponsorship fund to help undergraduates from all backgrounds undertake construction and built environment degree courses. Our Inspire Scholarships scheme offers students up to £9,000 over three years to help fund their studies, as well as providing scholars with work experience through partnerships with major employers. It has proved to be a great success, and is still expanding. We are also working closely with the ICE and their similar QUEST programme.

However, it’s not just about encouraging young people to take the university-based route into the sector. In order to engage people with the opportunities that the highways industry can offer them, it will be important to start addressing some of the misconceptions about the industry at a young age. We must encourage young people – and their teachers and parents - to see a role in highways as a strong career rather than dismiss it as a dead-end job, which it certainly is not.

That’s why ConstructionSkills employs dedicated Education Teams all around the country. They support young people, careers advisors, parents and teachers on a local basis. These teams work as part of regional Curriculum Centres and Partnerships networks, including representatives from FE colleges, professional institutions, Education Business Partnerships, employers, schools and careers services.

The benefits of these networks are particularly visible at times like National Construction Week, where young people have the opportunity to experience a wide range of construction-based activity all around the country, including site visits and in-school talks. This year’s National Construction Week has just finished. It was a great success, as ever. I hope some of you here today took the opportunity to get involved and promote the sector, because it is certainly appreciated by young people.

As well as making the industry more attractive, we also need to make entry routes into the industry clearer and simpler. ConstructionSkills has already been central to the development of the new Construction and the Built Environment GCSE. This aims to expose more young people to the range of opportunities offered by the construction industry. It is reflective of the industry, with units in the technical and professional spheres, such as building design and surveying, as well as in craft occupations. Challenging issues such as sustainability are not options, but core modules. I congratulated the first students last week at the ICE who had achieved the highest grades in the pilot of the GCSE. I look forward to watching the qualification’s development over the coming months as we evaluate its success.

In addition, we also offer Foundation Construction Certificates in Building Craft Occupations. These are vocational Key Stage 4 courses, which schools can offer to students to take alongside their GCSEs. And from 2008, the construction industry will be one of the first sectors to benefit from the new Diplomas for the 14 -19 age group. We will see the launch of the Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment, being introduced as part of the Government’s 14-19 education reforms.

Yet changing the workforce culture is not only about the workforce of the future. It is just as important to make sure that we are looking after the current highways workforce and ensuring that training is also helping to deliver their potential. There needs to be a continuous career path for those people already in the highways sector, not just those new to it.

Retention of staff is just as critical as recruiting the right people. Time and time again we see examples of companies who invest in their staff’s development reaping the rewards through staff loyalty. Too many employers have said that if you train your people, they will leave and work for your competitor. Yes, there will always be people who are in it for the short term gain. But it is essential for us as employers to take a longer term view of those whom we employ, showing that they have a career path and can develop in our firms and widen their outlook and workload.

Investment in staff doesn’t just result in loyalty. Benefits also improve the bottom line through increased customer satisfaction, repeat business, lower costs and fewer accidents. Safety is especially important. The tragic increase in the number of deaths we have seen on construction projects recently has put health and safety in construction firmly in the Government’s and the industry’s spotlight - as it certainly must be.

There are many initiatives currently underway to address this. Through our SkillsDirect service we have made access to CSCS cards, and the CSCS card process simpler. This is to make zero tolerance on-site a reality and to support the aims of organisations such as CECA and the Major Contractors Group. One of the reasons why this is particularly important is because of their focus on health and safety – all applicants must pass our industry Health & Safety Test to gain the card. With CSCS cards and its affiliated schemes now available in a wide range of categories of relevance to the highways sector, from Highways Maintenance Operative to roles at management and supervisory levels, there is no excuse for the sector not to embrace them. And clients can insist upon them, to support major firms requiring them.

In addition, ConstructionSkills has been working hard to engage the industry in the concept of Health and Safety Training as an ongoing process, rather than a one-off intervention. Our new Site Safety Plus programme builds on the well-respected ConstructionSkills Site Management Safety Training Scheme. It is designed to provide an integrated programme of safety training from one day Awareness Courses at operative level, to the five day Site Managers Safety Training Scheme at management level.

A new development of particular interest to the highways sector is the Plant Managers Safety Training Scheme. This is a safety scheme exclusively for plant managers, developed by ConstructionSkills and the National Construction College, in conjunction with the Construction Plant-hire Association.

The scheme will provide plant managers and instructors with a comprehensive knowledge of issues and of all the relevant legislation affecting the safe workings of the construction plant industry. More importantly, it will provide firm business benefits for the company. A workforce that operates with a high standard of health and safety is more productive and happy. The business is also more efficient and more likely to win contracts. People who take part in the training will not only see that it makes a major contribution to their company’s performance but also to the development of their own careers.

Training, however, needs to be much wider than Health and Safety alone. Another key focus of the work of ConstructionSkills is enabling those people in the highways sector and wider industry to access the best advice, upskill staff, invest in the right training and develop a training culture.

In many ways, it is good that Vocational Qualifications in highways maintenance for both operatives and supervisors and managers have been in existence for a long time. They are well used by the sector – a clear sign of your commitment to a highly skilled industry. More recently, a Vocational Qualification and CSCS category in traffic management has been developed. We are now working with the sector to review this, so as to connect the CSCS category to the Sector Schemes for the Highways.

For new entrants to the industry, or those who are already in specialised sectors where college training is likely to be uneconomic, we are also looking at developing innovative new methods of qualification.

One such recent development has been an industry training programme with the Road Safety Marking Association. Introduced as a pilot in November 2005, the scheme initially had six candidates, three of who have now completed the full programme and achieved their Level 2 NVQ. The initiative is now recognised as an apprenticeship for candidates seeking a career in the sector. To date seven programmes are running with 44 candidates having registered in all.

ConstructionSkills has now managed to have this scheme introduced as part of the Apprenticeship Framework Review. A pilot began last month, funded by the Learning & Skills Council. This programme has also been recognised by the Highways Agency. Further work is now taking place to develop a similar scheme for Road Planing.

Despite all this, the overall level of qualification within the sector, especially at Level 2 or above, remains worryingly low. If we are truly to address the perception problems of the industry, generate the skilled workforce we need to fulfil the highways order book, and retain our current workers, this is something that needs to be addressed urgently.

To achieve the construction sector-wide aspiration of a fully qualified workforce, the commitment of the whole of the highways sector will be key. Anecdotally, we know that ensuring your workforce is fully qualified and hold the relevant CSCS card pays dividends. Contractors tell us that the investment in training has definitely both up-skilled the workforce and improved retention. The hard facts are that clients are increasingly demanding qualifications. An investment in people is becoming increasingly important in keeping your best employees.

However, particularly at the smaller end of the sector, and amongst labour only contractors and agency staff, concerns about cost, about losing site-time for employees, and simple confusion about where to begin, is preventing them from reaping the benefits that a qualified workforce can bring. That’s why we’re working on a range of initiatives to make training and qualifications easier and more accessible.

Many of you will already be familiar with the On-Site Assessment and Training programme – OSAT. For experienced workers in the sector who have not yet gained an NVQ, OSAT enables them to gain one in six to twelve months without having to go back to college. By visiting workers on site, trained assessors can find out what skills they already have and develop an action plan to fill any gaps, without workers having to take any time off. Thousands of people have been helped to gain qualifications through this route already, and we have ambitious targets for the initiative going forward.

In addition, ConstructionSkills continues to distribute Grant as an enabler for all in-scope companies, with £140million being available this year. The support we offer from Company Development Advisers to help businesses with training strategy, and facilitate access to other sources of funding, such as the Government’s Train to Gain, is also vital in terms of helping firms of all sizes truly to embrace training.

And this training is not just about craft level. Another big theme that came out at the Labour Party Conference this year was that of lifelong learning. It’s about time we as an industry realised that learning does not end with a first qualification. Management and leadership are essential and generate ongoing training requirements.

Time and time again we see that construction managers often have great technical and legal ability, but many are weaker in the ‘softer skills’. This needs to change across the industry as a whole. In order to help managers develop these skills, and ensure the management of the highways sector is second to none, a pan-industry fund of £2 million per year has already been set up to provide relevant management and supervisory training. Through this, unitised courses have been developed to meet the needs of different sub-sectors. These are now being delivered with the support of individual industry Federations.

Working with Constructing Excellence and the Major Contractors Group People Forum, a Management and Leadership Framework has been developed for the industry, to assist us in benchmarking industry and company management and leadership skills, and their effect on provision. This has already helped us to identify career progression paths, and the relevant training and development provision.

In addition, for construction executives who are already in a management role, we have worked with Manchester Business School to develop and sponsor a unique MBA programme designed specifically to appeal to managers within all construction disciplines, including the highways sector, from architecture and engineering through to managing the process. The aim of the MBA is very much to equip managers with the skills to address the modern construction industry. I would encourage anyone wanting to be a future manager of a major infrastructure project to consider it.

It’s not just for business skills that construction industry managers need training. Another area high on the Government agenda is sustainability. ConstructionSkills was involved in the preparation of the Government’s draft Industry Sustainable Construction Strategy earlier this year. The results were published in July. This sets out targets for the whole construction industry, including reducing on-site waste, using sustainable materials and increasing skills in the workforce. Yet in order to reach these targets, and for the industry as a whole to reap the rewards of working in a sustainable manner, better training in this area will be needed across the board.

With construction at the heart of so much that the Government wishes to achieve in the next ten years – from the Olympics to school refurbishment - the spotlight on the role of training in highways and construction is becoming ever brighter. Indeed, the fact that the business benefits of training is such a focus of today’s conference shows that we are no longer viewing training as a ‘nice to have’, or an optional add on. It is a crucial ingredient for a first class operation.

A well trained, highly professional workforce is now fundamental to our success as employers and to the projects which we are delivering. The country’s eyes are on us to deliver some major infrastructure programmes in the coming years. With the right people with the right skills, and the right attitude towards investing in our employees, I know that we can exceed expectations. Our highways are absolutely vital to our modern industrial society. Their maintenance is essential for the free flow of traffic. We must ensure, all of us, that the industry and clients work together, with a skilled workforce, to deliver the best results for Britain. And, with your help, encouragement and involvement, that is what ConstructionSkills will do.

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