A range of construction industry surveys point to resources being one of the most critical factors that could impact on recovery. Lack of qualified tradesmen and a shortage of new entrants is piling pressure on the building finishes and interior fit-out sector. Steve Menary finds out how specialists are bridging the skills gaps.

“Operative training is a complete and utter mess,” sighed Angela Mansell, operations director at Mansell Finishes. “As long as there is the constant flow of imported labour that we can bring up to scratch, that will always be the case.”

Speak to many people across both the wider construction industry and the narrower plaster, drywall and interior fit-out sectors and this seems to be the prevailing consensus on training. Yet, amidst the prevailing gloom there are reasons for optimism. Not necessarily a national panacea, but a more fragmented solution.

At Mansell Finishes, their response to raising productivity has involved setting up an off-site fabrication facility in Manchester, where steel workers are being retrained. “We are looking to take staff off-site and the training we give them forms part of the manufacturing and construction NVQ,” added Ms Mansell.

Securing qualification is more important than ever. An interiors sector training review published last year found that two thirds of site staff are unqualified. With the old Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) green card phased out and now replaced by a new chipped blue card detailing qualifications, lack of training will be exposed.

Commenting, AIS FPDC training manager Jeremy Clayton said: “The association is committed to significantly increasing the number of operatives in the interiors sector that are adequately qualified to NVQ Level 2 and hold a related skilled worker CSCS card.

“To this end, we are currently working closely with CITB and sector training providers to devise a programme of delivery to roll out to the sector in 2015.  This will comprise onsite assessment of operatives through OSAT (on-site assessment and training) and through Specialist Upskilling Programmes. Funding will be available to AIS FPDC members to help off-set some of the costs.”

Paul Cano-Lopez, from Cano Training, has been training in the plaster and drywall sector for more than 25 years. He too agrees that on-site training is the only solution.

Mr Cano-Lopez explained: “Funding is getting tougher and labour-only subcontractors are an issue with regards to apprentices, but the industry isn’t going to change from the subcontracting model. You
just have to get on with it. What we need to do is set up small groups of people learning and manage them effectively on-site.” This approach ensures that new entrants can gain the necessary practical experience.

Cano Training works with further education colleges in the South East, such as Lewisham and South Thames to provide specialist plastering and drylining training.  Mr Cano-Lopez feels direct funding for private training providers could be beneficial as they tend to be more contractor focused as opposed to colleges who struggle to provide site experience.

However, specialist contractors do make their own direct links with colleges. MACS Plasterboard Systems won the Sword of Excellence, a national training award for the drylining sector organised by the Plaisterers’ Livery company, last year for an approach to training that included working with a local college.

MACS’ out-reach work has created a partnership with Barking & Dagenham College and the prison service. Tom McLoughlin, MACS chief executive, said the inspiration came from a 260-unit residential project for Jerram Faulkus in east London. The scheme included a commitment to local labour, so MACS hooked up with Barking & Dagenham College and, along with British Gypsum, took part in a skills day.

“There were probably about 14 lads initially,” recalled Mr McLoughlin. “We set them tasks like putting boards up and skimming them. We also did fibrous plaster and cornice details. After that we went to an interview skills days at Barking again and we were part of an interview panel. I told them all to call me on Saturday. Eight did and I told them to come along on Monday with a packed lunch and I would see what I could do.”

SIG provided free tools and MACS found work for eight trainees with main contractor Jerram Faulkus agreeing to temporarily waive the requirement for a CSCS card. One trainee quit immediately, but the other seven are still with MACS. “Barking & Dagenham College is such an inspirational place,” said an enthused Mr McLoughlin. “I would definitely recommend it to other subcontractors.”

Demand for skilled resources is not just a London centric problem. In the booming North West, the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce (GMCC) has taken a proactive approach itself to training by launching a drylining apprenticeship in conjunction with local contractor SCS Building Solutions and Salford College.

SCS chief executive Steve Friend said: “Having placed personnel with a number of training providers recently, it was clear that the only intention was to provide an NVQ by achieving the minimum requirements. SCS believed this would not improve the industry longer term and wanted to offer more than the minimum required.”

SCS has directly employed 10 apprentices who receive on-site training on the company’s package on an £81 million student accommodation scheme in Salford for main contractor Graham. The apprentices then spend a day a week at Salford College as they work towards their NVQ Level 2.

The apprenticeship has worked so well that GMCC is looking to expand. Other specialists, including Premier Lining, have already expressed interest. Like the work done by Mansell Finishes and MACS, this will not provide a nationwide solution but is still producing qualified tradespeople for an industry that remains desperate for skills.