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Cowboys in the last chance saloon

The building industry is shedding its old image. Tomorrow's workers will be highly skilled, qualified and from a wide range of backgrounds, reports Sue Jones.

THE popular image of the construction worker is still the strong-armed but intellectually challenged, white male. Industry leaders agree that recruiting young people of all abilities, ethnic minorities and women is desirable, but with rising skills and labour shortages it may also prove necessary.

Although the industry already employs one and a half million people, or about 10 per cent of the workforce, it will need to recruit another 366,000 by 2004 if it is to meet the expanding needs of housing, roads and manufacturing.

To tackle the shortages and image problem the Construction Industry Training Board (building's national training organisation) has launched a new business plan that includes:

mapping and developing future skills needs;

assessing and accrediting workers' skills; and

recruiting more workers and stopping experienced ones leaving the industry.

By 2004 the board aims to have 80 per cent of building employees on national vocational qualification level 2 or equivalent (the same as one GCSE at grade C or better), 50 per cent more female and minority trainees and a substantial increase in on-site assessment and training.

Apprenticeships had been around for a long time but not under a formal system until 1943, when the Government, anticipating the need for rebuilding after the Second World War, set up the Building and Apprenticeship Training Council to set standards for training off-site in colleges.

But the skills shortage continued and by the 1990s there was also a recruitment crisis. With a wider range of job opportunities for young people, construction came to be seen as a job for under-achievers.

Undoubtedly some were also put off by the image: the industry is still seen as old-fashioned, dirty, low-tech and plagued by "cowboys", sexism and racism.

Industry profit margins are currently thin, so training is bound to be squeezed. But with more and more clients, such as NHS Estates, demanding that at least 80 per cent of the workforce employed under their contracts have recognised qualifications, the board is keen to improve the skills base. Member companies which pay out at total of more than pound;60,000 a year in wages must pay a levy tha goes back into services for the industry, mostly training. Last year's training grants totalled pound;63.2 million.

In an industry with many sub-contractors, and where workers move constantly from site to site, keeping track of people is difficult. But the board is determined to create a database holding details of every worker with NVQs.

The industry already operates a registration system: 900,000 workers now carry a card giving details of their health and safety qualifications and accreditation in specific skills, such as bricklaying or plastering. The board aims to add 30,000 more by the end of this year and to register 75 per cent of the workforce by 2004.

But improvements in the numbers of workers getting vocational qualifications will depend partly on an expansion of on-site assessment and training; workers have been reluctant to go into college. "Where facilities have been provided, there has been an exponential curve of take-up," said Alistair Collin, CITB area manager for the North East and Cumbria. This year's aim is to get another 3,500 people to NVQ Level 2 using on-site training and assessment.

Practical skills are changing as buildings are increasingly pre-fabricated. Moreover, new skills are also required: builders who ten years ago were struggling with mobile phones now look for expertise to help them with computer software for company administration and presentations to clients.

As part of its drive for better training and access, the board has put in a bid to join the new University for Industry's network of centres for basic skills and job information.

It will also commission research into the reluctance of ethnic minorities (currently only 2.4 per cent of the workforce) to enter construction. CITB spokesperson, Simon Rix, believes that employers need to continue the campaign against racism at work before minorities can be persuaded to join up and stay. He says they must "change the reality first, then change the perception".

Women also need to be recruited. While there are already national advertising campaigns and female-only curriculum days at the CITB's network of centres, only 9 per cent of the construction workforce is female.

Perhaps one of the CITB's most ambitious but necessary targets is to change public perceptions by reaching 25 million people to promote a positive industry image.

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