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An early start to laying career foundations;Focus on the building trade;Bridging the skills gap

A group of nine and 10-year-olds wearing hard hats are standing in a semi-circle, bricks and mortar set out in front of them. They are about to learn how to build a wall.

The children, from Jessons Primary School, Dudley, in the West Midlands, are on a day visit to Dudley College as an introduction to the building trades. In addition to bricklaying, they will have a go at woodwork and then some plumbing.

Their teacher, Jo Nicholls, says: "They've been really looking forward to this. Some of them wanted to do what their dad does and others just wanted to build something."

Dudley is one of the CITB's curriculum centres. It started eight years ago. Sixty local primary and 16 secondary schools are involved in the scheme.

The college's co-ordinator, Ken Dance, says: "Some teachers reckon that we deliver 75 per cent of their technology curriculum in one day. The bricklaying is the bit they like best because they can get their hands dirty."

The building industry is suffering from a looming skills gap. 'The People Report', published by Contract Journal, says the industry is finding it hard to attract recruits and forecasts a 113,000 shortfall of skilled workers by the end of next year.

The industry's traditional source of labour, 16-year-old male school-leavers, is drying up as more stay on in full-time education. This year there will be an estimated 5,000 construction training places unfilled in colleges. On the management side, 30 per cent of places on civil engineering and construction management degree courses are unfilled.

Many of the bigger firms are involved in training. Laing recently set up two partnership training centres, catering for 288 youngsters, 91 funded under the Government's New Deal for the long-term unemployed. Blue Circle, the cement manufacturer, has committed itself to training staff in a variety of skills.

Tarmac runs its own craft training scheme, with 12 training centres nationwide. Each year these provide places for more than 2,000 trainees to learn the main building crafts. Tarmac has built good working partnerships with FE colleges.

The CITB, the industry's governing body, acknowledges problems in recruitment and training and it is trying to overcome the fragmented nature of the industry. It has pulled all the industry's 16 professional institutions together to devise a common basis of learning in all the degrees relating to construction.

Janine Michael, the board's operations manager, says: "It will help people working together so that they better understand their role, improve aspects of team building, and also get away from some of the adversarial practices of the past.

"We're not talking about getting rid of any of the professions at the moment, but in the long term we could see a rationalisation of what is really rather an archaic system."

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