Builders try to put up a united front

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National Construction Week '99, which begins tomorrow, has an unexpected goal. Not content with promoting their economic contribution and trumpeting their growing efficiency, the builders are trying to persuade the public that they can offer a rewarding career choice. Why should this be necessary?

Construction is our largest industry, responsible for pounds 60bn worth of work a year - more than pounds 1,000 for every person in the UK. It also employs 1.4 million people - almost one in 10 of our total workforce. These include 35,000 consultants collectively earning pounds 6.7bn in fees, of which pounds 1bn a year are invisible earnings from overseas.

Yet construction often gets a bad press. Much of the criticism relates to environmental issues. The industry is often accused of "concreting the countryside" - building new motorways and by-passes, out of town shopping centres, tower blocks, and factories on greenfield sites. The blame, however, should rest with the clients who dictate what they want built and where.

In part, that's why the industry finds it hard to attract enough high- calibre people to its professional and management posts. But the fragmented nature of the industry is also a factor.

Ted Willmott, Chairman of the National Construction Career Group, says that although there are some very large players in the industry - like Tarmac, Wimpey and Laing and consultancies like Ove Arup and WS Atkins - they are not representative. "The industry has a mass of medium and smaller companies, many of which are quite specialist. At least half the workforce is self-employed."

And when a bigger team is needed, a project team is thrown together on an ad hoc basis. Mr Willmott gives the channel tunnel as an example. "Five large companies and several consultancy firms grouped together, organised the finance, constructed the tunnel for three-and-a-half years, then dissipated again. No other industry operates in that way." Consequently, he says: "Given the fragmentation, the project based nature and the ad hoc nature of the groupings, there is a desperate need for some over-arching culture."

There used to be a common culture, he says, but it dissipated under the pressure of intense competition. The industry lost its focus on its long-term interests. "One consequence was that it neglected to pay attention to the education, training and career development of its people." The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) filled the gap, but government funding was concentrated on youth training. "Professional and management training, and the work of career development, was starved of cash."

Nevertheless, the Board established a small careers team, half its members concentrating on management and professional careers. But five years ago, the industry suffered its worst recession since the 1930s. It shed 600,000 people and the CITB lost pounds 20m a year from its per capita levy. No longer able to support its career team, it created what has become the National Construction Careers Group.

The group's aim is to ensure that an agreed message is put forward to schools about what the industry has to offer, that members will supply case studies, photographs and other support in kind; and that the group provides the editorial board for a private publisher to put out the Construction Careers Handbook.

The group has a national body responsible for strategy and research and 13 regional groups. At national level the group recently carried out research on career choice influences among 1,000 sixth form pupils. It found that the strongest influence of careers choice was work shadowing (followed by parents and then printed careers information). The group is now planning a national work-shadowing scheme. There are also initiatives to attract more women into the industry and to demonstrate the its sensitivity to environmental issues. The regional groups also arrange school visits, where they talk to thousands of young people a year.

The group is also involved in the National Construction Week. On Wednesday morning it will launch a Construction Curriculum Pack at the Millennium Dome. This will go to all schools in the country. It will enable students to work on the National Curriculum using construction, and the Millennium Dome in particular, as a context for their learning.

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