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Rafts of cash help to ride skills storms

How often do we hear an outcry over training crises in the construction industry?

First we are told there are too few plumbers coming out of college, then too many. When there were too few, Sir Digby Jones, then director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said colleges were "failing to respond to employers' demands". When there were too many, Sir Digby, now the Government's skills envoy, said colleges were "failing to respond to employers' demands". He said so only last week on BBC Radio 4's File on 4.

There was some truth in giving the same answer both times. It shows how notoriously unpredictable markets can be.

Creating a demand-led culture is not as easy as it sounds, despite what Sir Digby, employers and the Government say. Markets can change radically within a year, let alone a two- to four-year apprenticeship.

We need institutions with the capacity to balance the years of famine and plenty. And they need the scope, flexibility and resources to give students and apprentices the skills for other work should the markets fail their immediate aspirations.

One institution that has managed this superbly is the National Construction College, Europe's largest training centre for the construction industry.

And yet, with the debate about the Leitch Review of the UK's skills shortages in full swing, we find the board of the college pleading for public funding to save it from closure (page 3).

It must not be allowed to go to the wall, and every indication is that the Learning and Skills Council will come up with a rescue package. But this crisis is worth reflecting on. What it is facing now, colleges across the land have been grappling with for years. Neither the Government nor employers can blame them for the crises if they don't make sure they have the cash.

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