Training in the construction industry has slumped to such an extent, according to a new report, that foreign workers may be needed to fill the skills gap if business picks up, writes Lucy Ward.
An industry-wide survey has uncovered a dramatically worsening skills shortfall, with no sign of any move towards an urgently needed "sea-change".
The study, carried out by the Construction Round Table (CRT) - a group of the industry's leading customers - reveals that few employees are taking national vocational qualifications.
In a typical company, less than 4 per cent of staff are taking NVQ levels 1-3, while the number working towards management levels 4-5 is below 1 per cent.
The findings will fuel concerns raised in other recent studies about the low take-up of NVQs, adding weight to predictions that national targets for education and training - including a goal of 60 per cent of adults qualified to NVQ level 3 or equivalent by the year 2000 - will not be met.
The industry's current record on other, more traditional forms of training is no more encouraging. A mere 2-3 per cent of employees are engaged on in-house apprenticeship schemes.
Fewer than one in 20 are enrolled on further education courses, while less than 6 per cent of potential management candidates are taking management programmes, such as MBAs (Master of Business Administration qualifications).
Internal company training programmes are also failing to bridge the skills gap and typically affect less than one-tenth of employees.
The lack of training in the industry is damaging the ability of construction firms and their customers to work together on projects efficiently, the report finds. Among the key skills shortages identified are communication, project co-ordination and team work, together with budget and quality management.
The problem is particularly serious because industry trends indicate construction firms now need to work much more closely with clients, putting more emphasis than ever on a team approach.
The report concludes: "Without improvements in the level of training and skills accreditation, it is debatable whether the industry will be able to meet the skills needs of an up-turn in the construction sector".
That could lead to many UK customers turning to "significant numbers of leading overseas designers, contractors and consultants" who can show higher levels of competence, the study predicts.
Some in the building industry are likely to feel the CRT's call for greater training investment conflicts with its stated goal of bringing down the cost of construction projects by one-third, though the organisation - whose members include major organisations such as London Underground and Marks and Spencer - insists that it also aims to improve standards.
The study suggests industry clients, including CRT members, may be best placed to act as catalysts for boosting training. They could choose suppliers by insisting on minimum competency levels and long-term commitment to training, the report says.