Can we fix it?

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Can we fix it?"Yes we can", says Nick Gooderson, with the help of a practical project, aptly named the Constructionarium, an outdoor 'classroom' which is aiming to breathe new life into the construction industry. Here he explains how hands on, practical experience is making a difference to the UK's biggest 'business', one of the main sectors facing a looming skills crisis.

The construction industry is the UK's largest 'business' employing more than 2.5m people and contributing more than 9% to the annual GDP. This workforce is in a constant state of flux, either requiring 'up-skilling' of existing workers or training for new staff.

ConstructionSkills - the Sector Skills Council for the UK's construction industry - conducted a series of consultations in 2005 with leading employers and federations from the industry, to assess views on how the provision of training and assessment was working. A number of issues were raised but the predominant view expressed by employers was that they wanted workers with the right mix of skills to help their business in its day to day work.

Photo of Nick Gooderson"The Constructionarium gives students an opportunity to gain vital outdoor practical training – often their first taste of site work – recreating real-life structures such as London's iconic Gherkin building and Sir Norman Foster's Millau Viaduct."

The findings of the consultations paved the way for our Construction Qualification Strategy (CQS), which is being implemented to ensure there is a highly-skilled and competent industry workforce. Ultimately, we also hope the CQS will result in more competitive, productive and profitable businesses.

More than 20 priorities have been identified as part of the CQS, from informing emerging government policy about the needs of the construction sector to rationalising the myriad of qualifications on offer so businesses can trust that they are getting the best trained employees.

Higher education needs

One of the key areas where ConstructionSkills has started to make changes is within higher education, since it was one of the key areas that employers identified as needing work.

Traditional university courses offer those moving into professional areas of construction (e.g. architecture, surveying and engineering) deep grounding in the theoretical side of the industry, but often neglect to give much-needed practical experience to accompany the classroom learning.

Undergraduates need the opportunity to gain experience on a building site so they can fully appreciate how the industry works at a ground level, and how their roles may function once they join the working world.

To tackle this, a project called the Constructionarium was developed. It was set up by Imperial College and given a permanent, two-hectare home by ConstructionSkills at the National Construction College in Bircham Newton, Norfolk.

How Constructionarium works

The Constructionarium gives students an opportunity to gain vital outdoor practical training – often their first taste of site work – recreating real-life structures such as London's iconic Gherkin building and Sir Norman Foster's Millau Viaduct.

The participants are assigned roles, such as a project manager, as well as general operational staff and are given a project brief. The groups then liaise with established construction contractors (who act as 'clients') and trades people to ensure work is completed on time, and to an agreed budget.

Tasks they must complete, in addition to actually constructing the building replicas, include producing a tender document and a planning chart showing when and how work will be completed; essentially all the tasks that are regularly completed in the working world. They also have daily meetings with the 'client' to monitor progress and costs, and must adhere to rigorous health and safety regulations.

The process provides a hugely useful experience of working on a construction site as part of a multi-disciplined team, while receiving guidance and mentoring from experienced professionals.

In 2008, over 1,000 university students attended the Constructionarium and gained vital practical skills to accompany their theoretical knowledge. Feedback from participants – both learners and professionals – has been very encouraging. One civil engineer revisited Constructionarium this year as a contractor, having previously participated as a student four years ago. He was thoroughly convinced that the experience had helped him develop and secure employment, and strongly advocated the expansion of the model.

Keeping training fresh and relevant

The Constructionarium is just one example of how the Construction Qualification Strategy is working for the benefit of the construction industry.

In October 2008, construction apprenticeships are being broadened to give new entrants to the industry a more diverse and relevant mix of skills. We're also piloting the Apprenticeship Diploma, which integrates all the existing components of apprenticeship training into one qualification, simplifying the process for both learners and their employers.

"The process provides a hugely useful experience of working on a construction site as part of a multi-disciplined team, while receiving guidance and mentoring from experienced professionals."

A new qualification for 14–19 year olds, the Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment (C&BE), has also been launched to give school-age learners a head start in the industry. The ultimate aim is to simplify and improve the training on offer in the sector, making it more relevant, reducing drop-out rates and ensuring a workforce sufficiently skilled to compete globally.

The CQS itself is by no means set in stone. It will constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of the sector – from technicians and professionals to on-site occupations and from school level qualifications to lifelong learning.

Businesses in the industry have also been quick to embrace the importance of training and qualifications. Take the government's Skills Pledge, for example, which more than 1,000 construction firms in England – with more than 60,000 employees – have already signed up to, committing them to supporting all employees in developing their basic skills.

Nick Gooderson is the head of standards and qualifications at ConstructionSkills, the Sector Skills Council for the UK's construction industry. For further information on the Constructionarium, please visit www.constructionarium.co.uk or to find out more about the CQS, visit www.cskills.org

To read Editor Claire Savage's recent comment on the construction industry click here:
A week in training - the long view

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