The industry is grappling with an unprecedented range of major projects, but delivery will depend on a radical shake up of our training structure, says HVCA president Geoffrey Robinson.
Geoffrey Robinson Ltd is a £10m turnover M&E engineering firm that has been going for over 34 years. It now employs more than 100 people many of whom learned their trade with us and we have certainly reaped the benefit of all that experience and expertise.
However, the industry as a whole is still battling its way out of a training malaise. The instances of staff poaching have risen in direct correlation to the decline in apprentice training – nothing too surprising about that as it is a classic case of supply and demand.
The HVCA and other trade bodies have been lamenting this trend for well over a decade now and the picture has improved in recent years through the efforts of our training specialists and with greater government support for apprentice training. However, the growth in giant, prestige projects has further highlighted the remaining problem.
The immediate future is very worrying. Terminal 5 is a mammoth project that has sucked in labour from all parts of the country and beyond – we have certainly not been immune even up here in the North East. I applaud the efforts of those employers involved who have tailored apprentice training courses around the project itself, but you can’t get away from the fact that nearly 60,000 people have been employed at one time or another on that site.
Feeding that beast and keeping it fed with manpower is quite a task. It is also not enough for us to throw bodies at the work – we need properly trained and skilled workers.
AMEC has tackled the problem by developing an extremely sophisticated off-site fabrication approach with two centres in Kent and Scotland working in parallel to deliver prefabricated building services modules to T5. They say this has reduced the conventional site interfaces by over 60 percent, so reducing time and people and increasing predictability.
Undoubtedly prefabrication will have a growing part to play in delivering the major projects and I know Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium is making use of this approach too. However, what happens when the 2012 Olympic facilities start going up in East London?
We have to stop and take stock. We cannot simply stumble from one labour shortage to another and come up with emergency tactics each time. We cannot afford to let 2012 projects become a huge hiatus that sucks labour away from other parts of the industry because that will create a damaging knock-on effect for other essential projects all over the country.
The other issue is our ageing workforce. A very large proportion of our skilled people are very close to retirement age and must be replaced.
A training strategy is urgently needed and I believe we have one. I have a basic, naïve engineers view about the finances of training. There are firms out there perfectly at peace with themselves despite letting everyone else do their training for them. At the moment, they can’t lose from sitting back and waiting before stepping in and poaching recently qualified apprentices who can go straight onto their sites and be instantly productive.
The secret is to find a way where everyone contributes equally and fairly so that if an apprentice is poached no one wins or loses, at least financially. We need to be bold because the shortage of skilled labour is the biggest national issue confronting the industry.
That is why the HVCA is proposing a compulsory training fund, so that everyone contributes and everyone pays their way. The HVCA is in the middle of a consultation process with CIBSE, the Electrical Contractors’ Association, the Plumbing and Heating Industry Alliance, and the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Industry Board among others to decide on how the money for training should be raised.
Government may consider providing tax breaks and reductions in National Insurance payments for employers who contribute and the fund will not be a tax on employers or a return to the old CITB-style ‘money in, money out’ levy.
Rather funds will be raised from a variety of sources to reduce the burden on employers and will be used to finance specific training courses and schemes identified by our sector as areas of need.
The Government is already paying around £12,500 per apprentice in the Modern Apprenticeship scheme and the fact that it is prepared to consider fiscal incentives for employers who support a training fund shows this is a top political priority.
We are in the midst of a radical shake-up of the education arrangements for 14-19 year olds with many more hopefully channelled towards vocational courses and a career in construction-related trades.
That, ideally, is the future, but none of these things will happen without industry firms getting firmly on board. All employers must commit to apprentice training and to helping older workers willing either to change career or improve their skills if we are to meet the demands for our services over the short, medium and long-term.