Welcoming the UK’s Sector-Wide Construction Skills Plan
Iain McIlwee, Chief Executive of representative body for the UK’s finishes sector, the FIS, explains why his organisation welcomes the recently published sector-wide construction skills plan – with some caveats.
From an ageing workforce not being replaced to a younger generation not seeing the industry as an attractive and viable option, the contributing factors to the construction skills shortage are well documented. For some time the sector has struggled to find ways to address the crisis which is hampering both housebuilding targets and infrastructure projects. There is clearly no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem which is why the launch of the CLC Construction Skills Plan and its ambitious and broad range of measures is welcomed and an important step in the right direction.
The construction skills plan for 2021-25 sets out the key skills challenges facing construction and how they will be tackled. There are a series of clear actions and commitments for both industry and government to help meet these challenges, grouped under the following four areas:
- Standards and Qualifications
- Training, Education and Development
- Culture and Working Environment
To improve the attractiveness of construction careers and access to them, a Talent View portal will be created, providing a one-stop-shop for new entrants and an industry standard for work experience will be put in place. In addition, up to 7,000 STEM Ambassadors will be encouraged to join the sector-specific Construction and Built Environment scheme to present the career opportunities of the industry to school leavers, with a target of 1,700 fully supported by 2024. The success of this is dependent on employer commitment to allowing individuals to complete Ambassador engagements.
A set of new construction traineeship programmes, and a pathway from further education into construction, will be developed in order to support and boost routes into the industry. There will be a move to focus on competence by developing new competence frameworks. New training standards will be set in two areas: to support the drive towards net-zero fossil fuel emissions; and for smart construction to develop digital and offsite construction skills. The CLC also supports the drive towards increased direct employment. The plan supports government mandates on direct employment through procurement.
There is some good thinking in the plan and in the main it is easy to support and uphold the principles it projects. I do, however, have some concerns over the section on direct employment. We would need to see drastic changes in procurement to enable businesses to employ more. We possibly haven’t got the balance quite right, but with ridiculously short lead times, insufficient allowance in programmes and surge construction when the programme slips, flexibility is essential and that is before you look at the scale and geographic spread of projects in construction, and the fact businesses are so easily cast aside in favour of a cheaper quote.
Employment is not the only way to ensure we have an engaged and evolving workforce. Indeed the concept of employment has drastically changed in recent times with key tipping points such as the introduction of CIS and the death of the final salary pension scheme that have changed the landscape. We need to be careful of falling into the trap that PAYE is the only way and it was better because we used to employ everybody. But I am not convinced construction ever did in the conventional sense and there are areas like health and safety where we have been able to show marked success regardless of the employment model.
I believe we should bring some academic rigour to this part of the plan to better understand the balance and impact on productivity and quality by utilising a freelance contingent and ensure that procurement focusses on how we invest in, manage competence and supervise individuals rather than simply how we employ them.
With the paradigm shift created by the new points based immigration system effectively turning off the tap of importing skills, I don’t think there is any issue more important now to the FIS community. We need a rapid cultural shift and to rapidly ratchet up and provide support for the training infrastructure and vitally the companies that invest. This is also linked to procurement – FIS job is to help the good companies win contracts, the good companies are those that invest in the competence of the people on site today and in the future of our workforce through traineeships and apprenticeships. This is also, in the year of CITB consensus, the right time to be having the conversation. The levy was conceived and exists to support those investing and ensure that we can be supported in collective activity to fix real problems. It is vital as we go back to industry to interrogate the future of the levy that any future is linked to solving the problems today and future challenges of the companies investing.