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Big guns turn on the cowboys

As the Construction Industry Training Board launches its Positive Image campaign to recruit 76,000 people a year to the industry, Andrew Mourant (below) and Martin Whittaker (bottom) report on two schemes

LIVERPOOL has worked hard to reinvent itself as the European Capital of Culture 2008 and shake off its associations with 1980s' militancy, unemployment and deprivation.

As a massive regeneration programme, gets under way, the city is turning its sights on the cowboy builder. It hopes that the building boom on Merseyside will foster a new generation of master craftsmen and women in a bid to raise standards in the construction industry. The Liverpool International Construction Crafts Guild has been launched as a partnership between a group of businesspeople and Liverpool Community College to help people to gain higher level building skills.

Students will be offered training beyond NVQ 3 at college while also gaining practical experience with big construction firms.

The guild started life as a conversation between a group of Merseyside businesspeople, who lamented skill shortages and poor levels of training in building trades.

One of its founders is Sir Joe Dwyer, former chairman of house-building giant George Wimpey, and now chairman of urban regeneration company Liverpool Vision. He says that investment of pound;2 billion and an explosion in building in Liverpool over the next decade has highlighted a need for better quality training. The pound;750 million redevelopment of the city's Paradise Street area is one of the biggest city-centre regeneration schemes in Europe.

"The construction industry has gone through a period of dramatic change," he said. "Companies once recruited and employed people directly, whereas today they subcontract all the work. Because of the fragmentation of the industry, you find very few companies host training. Sadly, there's an unfortunate reduction in the quality of tradesmen today."

The guild was launched at the opening of Liverpool Community College's new pound;10m state-of-the-art construction and engineering faculty in May.

Stephen Wynn, the college's curriculum group manager for building services, said that the city's building boom is already turning the tide on addressing skill shortages. "All our courses are now virtually full," he said. "In some courses, such as plumbing, we have waiting lists - I could fill next year's now."

But construction industry training is held back by a lack of funding for those wanting to move on to higher-level skills, he said.

"At the moment there's nothing for them - they finish at level 3 and that's it. They go out and have exactly the same certificates as those who have scraped in at their third attempt."

The college will take on its first guild students this autumn. The new higher skills programme is part-funded by the Learning and Skills Council, though the guild does need to raise pound;500,000 from the private sector.

The programme will initially be open to 10 trainees and will take four years, though those unemployed may complete the course in two. Students will be expected to be qualified in their trade and the college aims to recruit experts to give master classes.

They will be accredited in enterprise skills and be given practical training with large construction companies. The college is in talks with City amp; Guilds to provide a master craftsman qualification at the end of the programme.

The guild's chairman is veteran adventurer Colonel John Blashford-Snell.

While more used to leading expeditions through the jungle, he will aim to give these students opportunities to work on building projects in developing countries. "There are so many people going to university now, doing things like media studies, some obscure IT course or even law, and there just aren't the jobs to cope with people with those qualifications.

"So this was part of the thinking: why don't we try to persuade more young people to go back into the good old blue-collar jobs. And what we really want to do is not only increase the numbers, but increase the standards.

There are so many cowboys ripping off people. We really ought to try to get rid of them and have the high standard of tradesmen we did in the old days."

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