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Hey, Mr Submarine Man

The new chief of the building trades skills council aims to torpedo two Labour policies. Joe Clancy reports

Keith Marshall is an expert in firing torpedoes. He spent 10 years specialising in electrical weapons in submarines while he was serving in the Royal Navy.

Now, the former lieutenant is preparing to up periscope once more. As chief executive of a new sector skills council set up to develop training and skills for the building industry it is the Government he has in his sights.

Before Education Secretary Charles Clarke launched his organisation this week, Mr Marshall fired two broadsides against government policies which he says are having a detrimental effect on recruitment in the building trades in his sector.

Torpedo number one was aimed at the government target of getting 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education.

This emphasis on the academic rather than vocational route for young people he describes as the "biggest single barrier" to recruitment in his sector.

Torpedo number two was aimed at the funding of modern apprenticeships, which he says offers little help to adults who want to begin vocational training or change careers.

In charge of the Government's scheme for delivering training to plumbers, electricians and engineers he is on a collision course with his paymasters.

His sector, he says, still needs a steady supply of school-leavers who should be trained on the job if recruitment needs are to be satisfied. These are threatened by the drive to boost the numbers of people with university degrees.

"Across the sector there is a well-established and well-regarded system of training that leads to the sort of output companies want," he says.

"In this sector, the jury is still out on the benefit of foundation degrees. The industry accepts NVQ level 3 as the right vehicle.

"The sector isn't crying out for foundation degrees, but it will be one aspect the sector uses for skills improvement."

Mr Marshall is chief executive of Summit Skills, which has been given a five-year licence by the Education Secretary to lead on recruitment to building services engineering. It is one of 23 new sector skills councils which are expected to be in place by the summer.

The sector has 55,000 employers, 558,000 employees, an annual turnover of pound;20 billion, and generates between 2 and 3 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

The average firm has 10 employees, although if the 100 largest companies are discounted, the average drops to around four, making it a sector dominated by small and micro-sized companies.

Less than 1 per cent of employees within the building sector are women, and less than 2 per cent are from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

"We can no longer depend on our traditional recruitment pool which has been white, 16-year-old males," he says. "That group is diminishing and is being sought by a number of other sectors.

"We have to throw away those misconceptions - and that means disregarding ethnicity, gender and age. That's where the Government's support can start to make a difference."

Strenuous efforts are now being made to recruit more women and people from ethnic minorities.

Women who live on their own often prefer to employ female and a Women into Plumbing group has been set up to meet this demand.

A working group on diversity has also been meeting since October in an effort to recruit more black and Asian workers. But there are still problems getting government support for a drive to recruit more adults into the building trades - hence Mr Marshall's second torpedo.

"The help is there for recruiting women and ethnic minorities," he says.

"But for the over-25s the picture changes completely. What assistance there is available is relatively small.

"If an older person is made redundant and wants to retrain as an electrician, there is nothing like the level of support for the employer.

If you are fed up with being a biochemist and want to become a gas fitter, the same applies.

"It would be enormously helpful if the Government were to change the funding for modern apprenticeships. For the employer, funding makes the difference between whether you can take on an apprentice or not."

There are certain assumptions that the country no longer needs to "home-grow" its own workforce because would-be plumbers and electricians from European Union accession countries are queuing up to work here. But Mr Marshall warns that such complacency could be disastrous.

"The risk is that employers will wait in the hope that there'll be a huge influx of qualified people, only to find it doesn't materialise."

Charles Clarke returned fire in defence of the policies. He told FEFocus:"We want more people to take the vocational route into higher education, progressing from modern apprenticeships onto foundation degrees."

He said he is willing to discuss more support for the over-25s. "It would be good for us to have a dialogue on this," he added.

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