A shameful secret

Poor literacy and poor numeracy cause accidents and huge loss of revenue in the UK construction industry, reports Robert Nurden
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The Independent Online

When Jordan Atanassov arrived in England from Bulgaria five years, ago he spoke no English. He took a job as a construction labourer but, while working at London's Canary Wharf, he made use of an on-site adult-education course in literacy. He is now training to be a scaffolder. "I have taken a step up in the world - literally," he says. "I have a dangerous job, and I have to be able to read health-and-safety manuals - I couldn't before. It's also helped me to understand life in Britain and get on better with colleagues."

Not every construction worker is as lucky as Jordan. Few bosses are prepared to give adult education the time of day. And it's UK workers in their thirties and forties who are least likely to come clean about their poor literacy skills. Yet increasingly, it is being acknowledged that a hefty proportion of the defects and accidents within the sector - a bill that amounts to £1bn a year - are caused by poor reading, writing and maths. Not being able to add up or read signs, misinterpretation of architects' instructions, wrong orders, filling out time-sheets incorrectly and poor communication are all evidence of on-site incompetence.

Now research by the Workplace Basic Skills Network of Lancaster University, on behalf of the Black Country Learning and Skills Council, has unearthed further evidence of the deplorable state of the sector's basic skills levels. Findings suggest that construction workers' reading abilities can be so poor that they often have difficulty finding the site they are supposed to be working on. "One of the most alarming things to come to light," says Joy Evans, who is heading the research in the Black Country, "is that the macho culture prevalent in building means that men are afraid they will lose face if they admit that they have poor literacy and numeracy skills."

A senior manager at a construction site at Canary Wharf tells of a catalogue of cock-ups caused by workers' lack of basic skills that added thousands to the final bill, as well as delaying the project way beyond its completion date. He says: "Mistakes happen all the time. It was found that builders had made the ramp to a car-park 150mm out of kilter. That meant the doors had to be pulled down and remade, and the concrete relaid. It also had a knock-on effect with services such as the installation of sprinklers. We wasted days getting it right."

Wayne Sloane, the manager of Workplace Training Services, Preston College, says that workers go to incredible lengths to cover up their deficiencies. "When they're unable to read or write something they frequently say they've left their spectacles behind," he says. And when workers are told in a group that they can take free classes in literacy, they universally reject it, according to Sean Andrews, a basic-skills teacher at Canary Wharf. "It's only later that they sneak up and ask me more about it." If a builder has a problem with, say, measuring, he often gets on his mobile and asks a mate what to do. And tricks of the trade still thrive - rough measuring with the index finger or the length of the elbow to the wrist, for example.

"There is an amazing discrepancy between what vocational teachers see as the level of need - they estimate that up to 80 per cent of learners on construction courses need better basic skills - compared with the perception of employers," says Ms Evans. "Even when companies acknowledge that something needs to be done, they invariably say that the employee must sort it out by attending courses at college in their own time."

But two important initiatives are underway. The construction industry is moving towards a fully trained, qualified workforce, and the Government is pouring £1.6bn over the next three years into improving the basic-skills level of Britain's workforce. The Construction Industry Training Board has introduced a system that requires operatives to hold a card of competence, guaranteeing that they satisfy minimum professional standards. The route to that card - introduced after pressure by the Government and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians to cut the number of accidents - is via a course called OSAT (On-Site Assessment and Training).

But there's a catch. The health-and-safety part of the test has to be taken on a PC, and uses polysyllabic words. This, according to Mr Sloane, is going to cause "massive problems". "Not only do many of these guys struggle with reading, they have no experience of using a computer. The whole initiative could be a disaster," he says.

Ms Evans is in no doubt as to what needs to be done. "Among many employers and teachers, the favoured solution is to assess literacy and numeracy skills at the beginning of a construction course, and to embed those basic skills into the vocational content at an early stage," she says.

But if the reaction of one group of construction workers on an on-site learning programme in the North is anything to go by, progress may be slow. At the end of their training day they were seen chucking the folders given to them to protect their written work into freshly mixed cement.

Workplace Basic Skills Network, Lancaster University (01524 593 405)

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