Stephen Hoare looks at the efforts being taken to tackle the dramatic decline in construction trainees.
The training crisis in the construction industry threatens craft and technician courses in 242 colleges and the survival of skills on which the industry depends.
A TES survey shows a one-fifth fall in recruits for college and workplace training, the seventh successive year of decline. Among the hardest hit are 16 to 19-year-olds. These are the typical part-time students on day release from employers.
The continuing fall reflects the depth of recession in the industry and lack of optimism in house-building.
Big construction companies no longer regard training as their concern and have replaced directly-employed workers with labour-only subcontractors on short-term contracts.
A Construction Industry Training Board spokesman said of the subcontractors: "They tend not to have the time to supervise trainees and are under pressure to finish work as quickly as possible."
Further Education Funding Council figures show a one-third decline from 1990 to 1993 in full and part-time trainees. The CITB, the lead body developing National Vocational Qualificationss in construction, said last year's intake fell from 12,730 to 10,987, a 15 per cent drop.
The switch of control over funds for part-timers from the FEFC to training and enterprise councils in April made things worse, the CITB said. With joint CITB and FEFC funding, colleges and employers had been able to recoup full costs of courses and work experience. Now, however, they accuse the TECS of short-changing them.
The CITB and TECs are set for a showdown. Craft courses in areas like bricklaying, joinery, and painting and decorating are expensive, falling within one of the highest cost bands of the FEFC funding formula. Employers, who pay a CITB training levy, have warned TECs they will refuse to fund trainees further.
TEC-funded construction courses contacted by The TES said that with trainee numbers dwindling, they would soon be unviable. Colleges where courses had been slashed or were under threat included Blackpool, Brunel, Croydon, Hammersmith, Lambeth and Newcastle.
John Brennan, policy director for the Association for Colleges, said: "In the end colleges must respond to the needs of industry and employers. If there is no demand they have to accept it and switch to other areas."
But the CITB rejects course closures. Chief executive Ted Willmott said: "We cannot afford to lose college training facilities. We may need them later when the volume of work picks up. If a college takes the view that there is no market for its construction courses and closes them then that provision is lost forever."
An FEFC-CITB rescue operation, backed by the AFC, was launched earlier this year. The FEFC ensures full-time courses are kept up and the CITB gives bursaries and funds 12 to 14-week work placements.
The board also spends Pounds 2 million a year on curriculum centres to attract 14 to 18-year-olds to the industry. The AFC is the broker for the rescue deal. Mr Brennan said: "We negotiated with the CITB a new pattern for first year NVQ training which essentially turned part-time courses into full-time students who were eligible for FEFC funding." A quarter of trainees follow this route, but it is too early to say whether the deal will succeed.
North West London College, one of the country's biggest construction colleges, is optimistic. Frank Horen, head of construction at the college, said: "Of our 700 or so NVQ crafts trainees only about a half are employed or sponsored so we will be looking to apply for bursaries."
Whatever the action to boost construction training, numbers are unlikely to rise significantly. The FEFC admits past estimates of growth were wildly over-optimistic and with other curriculum areas looking for an average growth of 20 per cent, construction is likely to be at best in single figures.