jobless quality construction-work experience. Jerome Monahan reports
AT A TIME when the construction industry desperately needs skilled workers, the secrets of a successful scheme designed to solve the problem and train the most disadvantaged members of society have been published.
The Construction Training Initiative has been pioneered by the Notting Hill Housing Trust. It targets the long-term unemployed, guaranteeing them quality building-site experience to complement college instruction.
The initiative has been welcomed by the leading building industry body, the Construction Industry Training Board, and has been adopted by three London boroughs.
According to Phil Page, CITB spokesperson, the blueprint could not have been published at a better time: "The recession of the early 1990s has led to a substantial decline in the number of apprenticeship schemes. Gone are many of the direct labour forces that might once have accommodated the next generation of skilled building workers."
In their place, he says, has risen a culture of sub-contracting and schedules and budgets so tight no one has time on-site to oversee trainees' progress.
The CITB estimates that the building trade is going to need about 5,000 extra people in formal education each year between now and 2003 if it is going to come close to filling the gaps.
The initiative tackles one of the most difficult problems faced by all building students: how to secure worthwhile work placements. It is a particularly tough hurdle for people emerging from unemployment.
"When we take on a student," says Construction Training Initiative co ordinator Jenny Harris, "we take on the whole person, providing support for all aspects of their lives.
"This can extend to offering housing advice, negotiating for them if their benefits are withdrawn and providing cash to cover college, travel and equipment costs.
"We even have a stock of work boots to dish out. While many are self-sufficient, some of our trainees are young or have been out of work for a long time and they need a lot of hand-holding. More than 200 people are currently working towards or completing their training.
"The scheme has already attracted a great deal of interest from cities such as Bath, Liverpool and Leeds," Jenny Harris adds.
"With the publication of the blueprint, we expect the interest to grow substantially. It sets out
everything we have learnt about finding and supporting trainees."
The blueprint reflects the Notting Hill Housing Trust's experience running the initiative over three years. In March it became self-financing, freeing it from the constraints that govern many such training schemes, when three London boroughs guaranteed that housing associations building in their areas would fund it through a direct levy.
The boroughs - Barnet, Hounslow and Brent - also guarantee a work placements by insisting that housing associations take on trainees as a condition of receiving planning permission for larger projects. This works out usually as one place per pound;3-500,000 of the budget.
Hounslow's director of housing Chris Langstaff is enthusiastic: "This is a very important scheme for us. It fits in with our long-held commitment to local training by offering a secure framework within which young people can work towards solid qualifications in an industry that is notoriously hard to enter."
It is the special buffer role played by the initiative's staff between all parties that is the secret of the scheme's simplicity and success. They are there to offer support and supervision - defusing conflicts and providing hardship grants and travel expenses to smooth the trainee's path. In addition, trainees can rely on back-up in disputes with employees, landlords and benefit agencies should problems arise and their on-site health and safety is ensured.
Despite the back-up, about a third of those enrolling with the initiative do not stay the whole course. High on the list of causes for this are the pressures many trainees face living in temporary accommodation such as hostels. "The failure rate is a measure of the vulnerability of many of our students," says Jenny Harris. "The scheme is extending the possibility of meaningful training to people with few support systems behind them."
Unlike other regeneration and employment schemes, the CTI's funding allows it to be flexible with its students. It is not tied to taking them from particular areas nor does it set tight time limits on their study. It requires more than six months to achieve a meaningful qualification in a building trade but that is the maximum normally allowed people under the New Deal to acquire a national vocational qualification level 2.
"We are placement-led," says Jenny Harris. "Only when we are happy in our minds that a building scheme is likely to prove a successful training ground will we recruit students to take advantage of it. Nor do we allow our trainees onto building sites before they can cope with the experience. Anything less could be setting them up to fail."
The Construction Training Initiative Blueprint is available from: The Notting Hill Housing Trust, Grove House, 27 Hammersmith Grove, London W6 OJL
CASE STUDY ONE: SARAH LORD
"I'VE ONLY been on two building sites so far but no one has taken the mick out of me - if they did I would give as good as I got," said Sarah Lord. "In my experience, the men are far more gossipy than women - you should hear the things they talk about."
Her two children are intrigued by their mother's work. Her son Terry often asks her why she wants to do a man's job.
Sarah spent years in all sorts of employment from cleaning to book-keeping but she was bored and felt she needed some direction in her life. When she decided on carpentry many in her family were shocked. "Now I do work for them," Sarah explains.
She enrolled on a one-year programme at Women's Education In Building and gained an NVQ
1 but afterwards she found it very hard to secure a job, particularly because she was a woman. The CTI programme has given Sarah the opportunity to build her confidence while
gaining on-site experience.
"The practical work is essential," says Sarah. "In college all the walls you practise on are nice and square - in reality everything is irregular and it takes ages and ages to make things fit properly. But then I am a bit of a perfectionist.
"I am not sure how I would have got on arranging work experience on my own. If they find out that you haven't worked much they won't take you. And then there's always the chance a placement can go wrong leaving you stranded. I got stuck on a site where they had got behind and didn't want to use me for carpentry work - so the CTI people found me another placement - there was no delay."
When Sarah completes the CTI
next year she hopes to get work with a sub-contractor. Her big ambition is to set herself up in her own business.
CASE STUDY TWO: KARL BEHAN
KARL Behan is 23. As a youngster he set his heart on playing professional football but when Chelsea turned him down at 14 he felt he had been left high and dry. He drifted after school - dabbling in electrics and labouring. After a period of unemployment he enrolled at the College of North West London and it was there that he heard of the Notting Hill Housing Trust Initiative.
"I'm taking an NVQ and City and Guilds courses together, heading for a career as an electrician. It is so important to have your papers if you are going to get on. But you need the experience too. I'm lucky - I have had lots of time on various sites but my friends who didn't join the scheme and passed their qualifications last year are still looking for placements.
"It's hard living on the money but I am definitely here to learn. At the moment I'm working with Peter - he shows me the way around things. It's really important to know how to do good work quickly and effeciently." CASE STUDY THREE:MARK JUSTIN
MARK Justin is 36 and heading for a GNVQ 2 in carpentry. He left school with no qualifications and drifted into building work. "When you're on site labouring you are the lowest of the low. It's a real dead end and there's no job security. I have three daughters and I owed it to them and to myself to get something better.
"I had been out of work for about three years when I heard about the initiative. I had really lost my way. Now I am enrolled at Hammersmith and West London College in Lime Grove. I attend college one day a week and the rest of the time I am getting practical experience.
"The CTI people really look after their trainees. I had some trouble on one site - my supervisor was on my back all the time as though I was a qualified carpenter and not a trainee on pound;171 a week. The bust-up came when he refused to let me get off 40 minutes early on a Friday so I could get home for my children.
"When he threatened me with the sack I called up the Notting Hill Housing Trust and the lady came down to the site. She gave them a real telling off and then helped sort out a new place for me - the vibes would have been bad if I had gone back there.
"Of course, it's all ultimately down to me - but in life you need extra support.
"Building sites are very different from what most people imagine - yes, they are muddy but you don't see blokes in holes with their bum cracks showing any more. It's a technical business."