Aaron Reid, chair of the WMCA construction skills taskforce and head of sustainable procurement at Balfour Beatty, discusses the importance of connecting local people to new developments
The Prime Minister’s recent ‘build, build, build‘ speech relaunched the government’s commitment to the infrastructure revolution and brought levelling up back to the top of the agenda. This welcome move, which seeks to re-energise regional and national economies to drive long-term recovery and success, is absolutely the right approach. For it to succeed, it must have at its heart an unswerving focus on the skills and employment opportunities for the region – especially for our younger generations and those living in the most deprived areas.
Labour market projections have highlighted construction as a key growth sector in the West Midlands, with estimations of up to 100,000 opportunities for trained workers in the construction industry over the next 10 years.
The West Midlands Combined Authority’s (WMCA) bespoke Construction Gateway programme, has made it an absolute priority to ensure that these jobs are rooted in the region and that local construction projects equate to local jobs. Benefitting from strategic investment in large infrastructure projects including HS2 and the Commonwealth Games, over 2,000 people have been trained in two years with over 50% of these people have already moved into jobs – some securing these opportunities within a matter of weeks.
This localised approach has never been more important than now, in the context of the massive economic blow dealt by Covid-19. This has created a perfect storm, with current unemployment levels likely to be just the tip of the iceberg with key sectors hard-hit and others coming to terms with ongoing restrictions, the pool of training opportunities shrinking as a consequence, and a range of other social issues coming to the fore.
The infrastructure investment in the region is therefore doubly welcome, giving us the tools we need to take immediate action to reboot the regional economy: we know that a skilled regional workforce with secure employment drives growth and all those involved are committed this is what we deliver.
Supporting employer demand
Unemployment across the West Midlands is generally higher than the UK average, with workers generally lower-skilled. Since the creation of Combined Authority, the region has made welcome progress in turning this around and has begun to outpace others in improving these statistics. Recognising that construction is a key growth area, one of the things that has been carried out is a detailed assessment of the current skills landscape to identify where the skills gaps are and where the opportunities lie for both the new and existing workforce.
Armed with this information, the next step has been the development of a well thought out, strategic approach which includes key steps such as phasing training to meet the schedules of construction so that the skilled workforce needed is ready in the right place at the right time.
Staying in constant, close communication with employers ensures that we are both delivering exactly what they need, and that the region has the skilled construction workforce it needs to thrive and deliver its own post-Covid-19 economic success story.
Opportunities for communities
Ensuring public money is being spent on infrastructure which benefits local communities as much as possible is vital and offering a route into secure employment is often one of the best ways of doing so.
The WMCA’s Construction Gateway provides formal, job entry construction training through both classroom provision and practical onsite experience with Tier 1 employers and their supply chain. During the Covid-19 lockdown, this was moved online to enable training to continue in the form of virtual classes covering construction and plant operation training, including how to operate dumper trucks, ride-on rollers, and excavators.
Individuals gain qualifications which are essential to work on any site, such as the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card, and more in-depth courses such as the City and Guilds accredited Level 2 NVQ in rail engineering track maintenance.
Providing opportunities for residents who are often at a disadvantage in the labour market including people who have been out of work for long periods, ex-offenders and those from underrepresented black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, has been particularly important and is a major benefit of the building big infrastructure schemes. For example, HS2 runs adjacent to some of the most deprived areas of Birmingham, meaning that we have been able to provide those residents with opportunities to gain skills, find employment and contribute to local projects. To date, 49% of Construction Gateway students have been from BAME groups and 5 % have been women (compared to 7% and 1% respectively employed across the sector).
This type of programme not only offers unemployed people a free, hands-on introduction to construction skills but more crucially, guarantees them a job interview on completion of the course, with 49% of students securing employment within six months. Being able to offer local people the opportunity to be involved in the construction of ‘their’ area and contribute to their community offers many advantages; it is a real benefit having local residents build something they can take pride in.
One example is Felix, who, previously haven fallen on hard times and even finding himself homeless, had been working as a delivery and taxi driver. He joined the Construction Gateway through the charity, Crisis in Birmingham in 2019. Felix gained his CSCS card as well as his dumper and slinger licences through Construction Gateway. On top of the technical skills acquired through his training, Felix also gained significant confidence and interpersonal skills, which ultimately led him to a successful interview and full-time work on the Balfour Beatty VINCI joint venture project at the Fosse Way compound for HS2.
With Covid-19 impacting the programme earlier this year, the shift to online training not only provided a bridge for people to build skills and experience without having to physically be on-site or in the classroom, but also presented a timely opportunity for the construction workforce to continue adapting to new ways of working. For example, new technological developments, such as GPS machine controls, are entering the construction industry – demonstrating a need for workers to continually evolve with the sector.
Collaborating with employers and providers
The key to the success of the training packages on offer is that they have been designed in collaboration with employers, Further Education colleges and specialist providers. This ensures that individuals have access to the same high-quality curriculum, regardless of where they are trained, making their skills transferable and marketable. It also provides them with the reassurance that the skills they are equipped with, are those specifically relevant to, and required by, employers within the region.
All of the relevant parties working so closely together from the outset has meant that training to be conducted in a phased approach to align with the scheduling of local building and construction work, and in response to when jobs are needed.
It has also underpinned a much stronger focus on matching skills funding with the skills needs of the construction sector, and this knowledge has, in turn, supported an improvement in the relationship between training providers and major construction employers, to the benefit of all parties and the delivery of skills across the region.
Consequently, employers have identified improved access to skilled, motivated and ‘work ready’ staff, also improving the perception of those within so-called ‘harder to reach’ demographics. Aligning training with the needs of employers’ and engaging with a wider demographic of students results in wider economic benefits – for example, new talent coming into the workforce.
Reaping the rewards
Making sure that local people have first refusal on secure, fulfilling employment in their area is an absolute priority. We know that being connected to new developments provides multiple benefits for local people, not only as service users but economically as employees.
Taking the success of this programme and approach within the West Midlands, we can apply this notion of greater collaboration and better understanding within other regions in a bid to offer more opportunities to residents, effectively cater to employer demand, and contribute towards the government’s levelling up commitment.
Chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority Construction Skills Taskforce
Head of sustainable procurement at Balfour Beatty