The Real Deal (at last)?
Andrew Eldred, ECA director of Employment and Skills offers his thoughts on the call for a move to direct employment in the construction industry – and why it’s vital for training.
Almost a year ago, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) published a Skills Strategy and Action Plan. At the time, I criticised the Strategy and Plan as “a multitude of different, mostly unconnected training, communications and research initiatives..., but none get to the root of the problem."
Since then, change has been in the air. Andy Mitchell of Tideway has positioned himself as both a more inclusive and more radical CLC Chair. Simultaneously, Mark Reynolds of Mace appears to have hit his stride with the CLC skills workstream: for example, appointing SME representatives to help reduce the previous big project/ main contractor bias.
Earlier in July, the skills workstream published its second report: “Future Skills”. The good news is that this appears more promising than last year’s effort.
First, “Future Skills” is more focused: zooming in on how to increase industry take-up of “smart-construction” technology and techniques.
Secondly, this report, unlike the previous one, acknowledges that construction skills development doesn’t begin and end with the CITB. It explicitly recognises, for example, the role our sector has to play, through the Electrotechnical Skills Partnership, in incorporating smart construction into qualifications.
Finally, and most significantly, the CLC begins to get to the root of the problem by accepting that an industry which shirks its responsibilities in employing people will also inevitably fail to train, up-skill and re-skill enough of them. Higher levels of direct employment, it maintains, are a necessary precondition for future innovation and productivity improvement.
This line of reasoning concludes with a call to action which one distinguished, long-term critic of construction reform initiatives confessed led him to “nearly to fall off my chair”.
It states: “This report therefore calls for clients to agree a code of employment to level the playing field, where those who contribute to a project are directly employed, thereby ensuring that it is in the employer’s best interest to train their staff and benefit from their improved productivity.”
Having ignored or denied it for over 40 years, this acknowledgement from UK construction sector leaders of the (surely always obvious!) link between employment and skills development potentially marks an important turning point. Whether that potential is ever realised, of course, depends on what happens next.
The ECA, along with JIB and Unite the Union, have played a big part in lobbying the CLC to prioritise support for direct employment in its “Future Skills” report. For the CLC’s call to action to have any significant, lasting impact, we would now argue that a client-led code of practice must:
1. Be adopted by as wide a range of clients as possible - including not just high-profile infrastructure mega-projects like Hinkley, Heathrow or HS2, but also more mainstream commercial, residential and public sector work.
2. Have input from trade unions and all parts of the construction supply chain.
3. Aim to secure real and effective change - in other words, avoid being reduced to a procurement-led “tick-the-box” exercise or PR-led, aspirational “spin”.
4. Have a clear concept of what is meant by “direct employment”, incorporating both the tax/ employment status issues and the degree to which construction activities are carried out in-house or outsourced.
5. Communicate the broad stakeholder and societal benefits of direct employment.
6. Include guidance on appropriate procurement, contractual, monitoring, auditing and enforcement processes.
7. Acquire statutory under-pinning by the UK Government (finally) implementing the tax and employment status recommendations of the 2017 Taylor report.
Putting all the above in place should help give the industry at least a fighting chance of achieving the ambitious objectives for skills and innovation which the CLC has set. So, let’s travel in hope - and hang onto our chairs.
By Andrew Eldred is ECA director of Employment and Skills