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MPs urged to build skills

The low status of vocational training is damaging the building industry . Joe Clancy reports

A major recruitment crisis is looming in the construction industry unless the Government can persuade young people that vocational education has as much value as academic studies.

This was the message spelt out this week to MPs on the education select committee investigating the national skills strategy in 14 to 19 education.

Trevor Walker, chairman of the Construction Confederation, told the committee on Monday that the industry needs around 800,000 new recruits a year, but training is delivering nothing like that figure.

He said the confederation has been looking to the Government to switch its emphasis from academic to vocational development if a recruitment crisis is to be avoided. He added: "I do not see the Government bringing about that philosophical change."

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the committee, asked him if he felt it was the role of the Government to bring about such a change in emphasis, and did he believe it had the power to do so.

Mr Walker cited the Government's target of 50 per cent of school-leavers going on to university as an example of the continuing emphasis on the academic route.

He replied: "Our perception is that training is not delivering enough people to us. The prospects are currently not good.

"We are acutely aware of the skills shortage. There are a lot of initiatives out there, but we are battling against a society which sees construction as an industry of last resort, not of first choice."

Of the 1.8 million people employed in the construction industry, he added, "something like a third are due to fall out of the system in the next four years". He said that unless the Government gets to grips with the issue the industry will be in trouble.

He was supported by the Federation of Small Businesses, which was also giving evidence to the Committee alongside him.

Norman Mackel, the federation's head of training, said: "The culture in education has to undergo a massive change to get the kind of delivery we are talking about."

The federation said in written evidence to the MPs: "The perception that vocational qualifications are worth less than academic qualifications has prevailed in the UK for far too long. This is contrary to the situation in other European countries.

"Too frequently, students only take vocational courses when they are deemed to have failed the academic route."

Mr Walker was also questioned by several MPs about what the industry was doing to attract more female recruits, and more people from ethnic-minority groups.

Mr Sheerman said: "If you look at any construction site, most of the workers are white and male."

He was told that the confederation is doing much work in schools to get the message across to these groups, but the perception of the industry, particularly among careers teachers, is poor.

One MP also asked if, with people "queuing up" to work in the UK construction industry from countries poised to join the European Union, "is it not cheaper to recruit our bricklayers and plumbers off the shelf from Slovakia?"

Chris Jones, of the confederation said it was "quite happy to assimilate people from elsewhere".

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