Education: Get the builders back in

Cuts to construction courses during the recession have led to a skills shortage for prestige projects such as the Millennium Dome. Lucy Ward investigates
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The clang of doors closing on under-used college construction departments easily drowned out any sound of building during the recession. But now, with the Millennium Dome in London and other grand projects breathing new life into the construction industry, training leaders are warning there are too few skilled workers to meet demand.

The shortage of builders has come about as further education colleges, which traditionally trained hundreds of thousands of apprentices in skills ranging from carpentry to bricklaying, have phased out courses and whole departments to save money.

In London the rush to complete grand-scale millennium projects on time is likely to prompt an influx of labour from elsewhere in Britain and from the Continent on a scale unseen since the building of the Canary Wharf development in London's Docklands in the Eighties, according to training and enterprise councils.

They believe that other major construction schemes, such as the proposed fifth terminal at Heathrow and the European terminal at King's Cross, will also offer few opportunities for local workers unless substantial training programmes swiftly get underway.

The Further Education Funding Council, which funds colleges and ensures that they provide enough education and training to meet local need, this month launched an investigation of construction and retail training across Greater London in the light of expected demand.

Its initial analysis of trends in the capital projected a growth in construction after the decline of the recession and warned of possible skill shortages. According to Solotec, the training and enterprise council covering the Greenwich millennium site, construction training, where available, concentrates on traditional skills such as bricklaying and plastering at the expense of the more hi-tech techniques likely to be needed for the dome.

The operations director, Ian Irving, says: "We are talking about a structure of steel and glass or fabric which will require specialist construction gangs, possibly from all over Europe. The fear is that the local people won't get a look in."

Solotec, which like other TECs distributes government cash for training, has opted not to plough any of a newly-won pounds 36m European millennium grant into construction training, though the project is expected to generate 10,000 construction jobs. Instead, it will put the money into training in service sectors, including retail and catering.

Alan Bates, head of construction training at Lewisham College, which is now one of the few remaining major building training providers in London, with 650 construction trainees, says that many other colleges have swapped expensive construction departments for hairdressing or computer training, where more students can be packed in at lower cost.

"There may be people around with some basic carpentry or bricklaying", he says, "but there's a drastic shortage of fully qualified craftspeople".

Heathrow's fifth terminal, if approved, will also involve hi-tech building technologies. Two further education colleges - Ealing and Richmond - are attempting to prepare for the new demands by opening a construction training centre with grants from West London TEC.

The TEC development director, Vince Taylor, says: "These schemes will be ships that pass us in the night if we don't get going sharply"