Doctor on the house: If building is unsuitable, we'll get unsuitable builders

What do we do with talented kids who love construction? We direct them to an office job, says Jeff Howell

MY FIRST impression of builders was the white boots. I wasn't sure what to think about them because my mum told me that building sites were dirty places. But the huge Irishmen who shambled into The Alma had white boots, and white can't be dirty, can it?

You see, I used to walk home from school past this pub where there were always building workers going in. Sometimes I'd stop at the site and peer through the chain link fence. I was fascinated by it - noise, great big machines, trucks and cranes - and every day there'd be a bit more built on: bigger slabs of concrete or higher brick walls.

And then the noise would stop and the builders would walk up to The Alma, and I would look at their white boots and wonder. It was lime, of course, and concrete bleached in the sun, but I didn't know that; I thought they were special white building boots.

Children are fascinated by building. They love playing with wooden bricks and Lego and pil-ing things on top of each other; they make tree houses and dens in the garden; even a cardboard grocery box can make a house or castle that will keep a kid happy for hours. Building seems to be a natural human instinct, so how come the brightest kids don't end up building things for a living?

They get talked out of it, that's how come. At school, any child who shows the potential for anything more challenging than bar-code scanning is rapidly directed towards the office-bound occupations, and anyone who expresses the ridiculous ambition of a career in building is swiftly disabused.

So many of the people who end up in the building trades are there because they were thought unsuitable for anything more intellectual. And many others, who rejected that negative publicity and went into building because - what the hell - they liked it, have to suffer the opprobrium of being cast as no-hopers.

Now demand for training is so low that next month three London building colleges are laying off tutors and scrapping courses, while the industry itself is in crisis because of a shortage of trained personnel.

And this below-centre image does much to explain why successive governments have fought shy of regulating the building industry. Since building is done by a rabble of tattooed oafs, they seem to think, what chance is there of controlling it? Might just as well let them get on with it.

Two problems with this approach: first, the rest of the population is beholden to builders to keep them warm/dry/alive; and second, the builders who are doing a good job are fed up with being lumped together with the moron crowd - just as your average football fan resents being tarred with the same brush as the bottle-throwers of Marseilles.

But as long as there is no regulation, and the public image of the builder is of a beer belly bulging out over a pair of Union Jack shorts, and as long as women dread walking past building sites because of the sexist taunting, then children will be told that building is not a suitable occupation for an intelligent grown-up.

Even if you do get to wear white boots.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail:

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