This month’s report into the role the Building Regulations played in last June’s horrific Grenfell Tower fire has stirred up plenty of controversy – and too many people are missing the point.
The national headlines were full of calls for a complete ban on combustible cladding and, ultimately, they will probably get their way – but the inquiry led by Dame Judith Hackitt was trying to look much deeper than headlines and scoring popular political points.
Her committee highlighted the construction industry’s “systemic problems” in the way projects are designed, delivered and managed – and the need for the industry to take responsibility by improving competence and compliance.
It is not the building regulations themselves, but the ‘culture’ of ignoring them in order to save money, which led to the Grenfell tragedy. The cladding used to refurbish the tower breached the regulations – it should not have been used – so it was the enforcement regime itself that failed.
In effect, we already have a ban on that type of cladding, but we don’t have a system that makes sure the right kind of work is carried out in buildings using appropriate workmanship and materials.
The Hackitt report puts the emphasis on viewing buildings as a system, rather than a collection of components, and it calls on the industry to take responsibility for delivering high-quality projects delivered by competent teams.
She made recommendations to address poor procurement practices and to drive appropriate behaviour and practice, including a focus on safety and risk and on whole life cost. This is all about the process – not specific technical details, all of which would be picked up by a better system. After all, threats to a building’s safety come from lots of different places so you must have a system in place that works.
However, the proposal to create a new body to oversee competence requirements could be the most critical element of her review because any new regulatory approach can only succeed if you have a highly competent workforce delivering the projects. Our industry’s competent person schemes and training regimes will have to step up to meet this challenge.
However, we are suffering from a crippling skills gap and there was a 25% fall in apprenticeship starts this year, which led to heavy criticism of the Apprenticeship Levy.
Many SMEs are struggling to access the funding and employers are often critical of the training on offer from the 2,500 recognised providers under the Levy system. The task now is to get the funding out, via employers, to providers capable of producing a workforce that can cope with these new post-Grenfell demands.
The principle of life-long learning will be vital. The New Standard apprenticeships, which are just getting up and running, will have to be supported by training providers who can offer practical training – we cannot have a new generation of classroom-based engineers out there if we are to meet Dame Judith’s competence challenge.
Our industry bodies like BESA must step up the pressure on the Department for Education to get funding into the right places where it can properly support employers.
The new-style apprenticeships – many of which were developed by BESA members like M+W Hargreaves – can deliver a generation of workers with the right skills and behaviours to operate as part of a modern workforce. They will be backed up by ‘qualifications for life’ that can be regularly updated as markets and technologies change.
Against this new challenging backdrop, we cannot afford to have more of the “dead end courses” attacked recently by the trade union Unite. It found that just 10% of construction-related courses were linked to an apprenticeship and most were purely classroom-based.
Unite said the funding currently going to colleges and private training providers should be refocused and used to promote a greater number of “genuine apprenticeships”. It said too many young people were “having their hopes of a construction career crushed”.
The attraction of apprentices is one challenge, but we have a much broader crisis if business is to provide the answers to the “systemic problems” in the way projects are designed, delivered and managed.
I see a future where there must be more individual accountability for work completed. Technology will facilitate this and businesses need a competent workforce to action and deliver.
Finding cash to fund the education and retraining of thousands of white and blue-collar staff with the skills needed for the future will be a priority for all responsible businesses. This will come at a time when billions of pounds have been taken from our economy through the collapse of Carillion further compromising the modest margins that our sector makes.
At M+W Hargreaves, anticipating future opportunities for higher competence, we have launched our Enterprise Talent Programme (ETP), which focusses on continuous development of talent vertically through the business. We also have a ‘Suitably Qualified & Experienced Personnel’ (SQEP) register for all staff, which we use as an important talent management tool.
We have also just taken on another eight new ‘genuine’ apprentices through our Engineering Young Talent Programme (EYTP).
Set up in 2012, the programme works with schools in our local area to enthuse young people about engineering careers. Initially aimed at students between the ages of 9 and 21, it is now engaging even younger children at primary school and we are also working at the other end on degree-based apprenticeships with Salford University.
Our course ‘alumni’ have all followed a programme through different stages of their school lives – and the best are eventually offered apprenticeships by the company.
I have a vision and expect that, by 2023, 30% of our entire workforce will have come through the EYTP. All will have followed a highly practical, very focused education path equipping them with the modern skills they need to meet the increasingly complex challenges our industry faces.
I would recommend our model to other building services and broader construction employers because it enables you to track those children who show the greatest aptitude for engineering tasks from a very early stage right through to secondary education; into an apprenticeship; and then onto further education.
It works well on a local level and supports your profile as a respected local employer. We would love to see EYTPs set up by other building engineering firms all over the country – and we are going to need them.
It is this cohort that represents our best chance of providing a workforce capable of picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Dame Judith and ensuring buildings in the future are safer and healthier places to live, work and play.