Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 04 February 2009

Inquiry into the Way Forward for Apprenticeships

4 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Robin Newton (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Rev Dr Robert Coulter
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Mr Willian Irwin
Ms Anna Lo
Mr David McClarty
Mrs Claire McGill

Witnesses:
Mr Tony Doran ) Construction Industry Training Board
Mr Allan McMullen )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Newton):

Today, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) will provide a substantive briefing on apprenticeship training. It follows on from the briefing that we received on 28 January 2009 from the Engineering Training Council (ETC) on the same matter. I give a warm welcome to Mr Tony Doran and Mr Allan McMullen. Thank you for coming to the Committee.

You will be aware that we are interested in apprenticeships and are conducting an inquiry into that area. In a few months’ time, the Committee intends to publish a report on apprenticeship training, which will cover all sectors of industry. Are you prepared to provide an outline to the Committee in whatever format or approach you want to take and, afterwards, to answer any questions that arise?

Mr Tony Doran (Construction Industry Training Board):

Certainly, Mr Deputy Chairman. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Tony Doran. I am the chairman of CITB. Allan is the chief executive. I was appointed by the Minister for Employment and Learning on 1 August 2008. With your indulgence, I will provide a few minutes of background information on the CITB and the review. I will also comment on the Assembly debate on the topic that took place on 22 January 2008.

Allan will speak specifically about some work that we have already done on reviewing current apprentice arrangements for construction. That work is being carried out in partnership with the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) and the trade unions to consider a long-term model. We will then talk about some of the short-term actions that the board has taken to increase grants from our budget that is available to maintain apprenticeships. The third item is some work that we are doing at present to consider what options are available to Government for maintaining apprenticeships during the economic downturn and the thorny issues of maintaining current apprenticeships and the difficulties of taking on the next cohort of apprenticeships next year, and where that balance lies.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to meet the Committee. Some of the comments made about the CITB in the debate last spring were pointed, to say the least. Some were made without full knowledge of the facts; that is true in particular of some of the comparisons drawn between our situation and that of England.

The financial model in Northern Ireland is simple: 90% of our income is from a statutory levy, which we gain through an Assembly vote. The income is a little over £5 million. In England, the statutory levy — according to the 2007 accounts — was £165 million. The income from other non-statutory sources was £120 million. In crude terms, the English CITB has almost as much income from non-statutory sources as from the statutory levy. Therefore, its expenses, as a proportion of the statutory levy, are much lower than ours. In England, the non-statutory levy comes from Government in a variety of forms to subsidise and encourage training, from various sources that are available there. In Northern Ireland, there is no such access for CITB to Government funding to help maintain and deliver employment training in the construction industry.

The English model might be relevant in the discussion about apprenticeships. CITB here has a potential role to play, both with regard to new recruits coming into the industry and to help apprentices to finish their apprenticeships during the economic downturn. However, that will require funding the Northern Ireland CITB in the manner that the English CITB is funded. That was the first broad comparison that was drawn during the Assembly debate.

I will comment briefly on the other areas raised. There was a comment made about the absence of direct training from the board. We have reviewed that in the light of the comment, and we have introduced a direct training programme for smaller companies. That was in direct response to remarks made in the Assembly debate. I do not say which is right and which is wrong. Decisions are taken in the light of the information available; if the feeling is that we have to change policy, as a statutory body, we are open to doing that.

Secondly, at our board meeting last week, we increased grants available to employers, including grants for apprenticeships, by close to 30%. We are lucky to have a reserve that we accumulated during the good times; we are now using that to subsidise training during the bad times.

We have also introduced Web-based systems that the board has been working on for a period, to simplify administration, reduce costs and make it easier for employers to get access to grants without the bureaucracy. As a public body, CITB is accountable, through the Committee and others, to ensure that the money is spent appropriately. That process is necessarily bureaucratic.

A private-sector organisation does not have those obligations. However, as a public-sector body, we must have certainty that the individual has undergone the training, that the employer has paid the appropriate levy, that there is proper certification for the training undertaken, and that the employer claims it. That process can be audited, but it is expensive, bureaucratic and time-consuming. We have instituted ways, through a Web-based system, of simplifying that process. We are finding ways to pay the training provider directly, and we have, within the constraints of public policy, looked at ways to simplify the administration.

As you are aware, there is a review going on at the board. Following the debate, Deloitte was appointed, and, as I understand it, a report will be available in the midterm that will answer the first question about whether we should continue and what we should do once that has been decided.

I sat on the board as both a board member and chairman, and I am satisfied that it meets the required standards of public accountability. Within those standards, we have examined ways in which to minimise cost and to improve efficiency, which is difficult, and we have examined ways in which to respond to the observations of both politicians and levy payers. Allan and I are having a series of meetings around the Province to hear what levy payers had to say. That is all that I want to say by way of a general introduction, and I am very happy to answer any general questions on those issues.

The main area of debate this morning is around the issue of apprenticeships. It is a difficult issue for the construction industry, because you know as well as we do about the stop-go nature of the industry. Around one and a half years ago, we were being asked whether we had enough capacity to meet the investment strategy; now we are being asked whether Government can provide enough work to keep a reduced workforce in place. Therefore, how can one plan for the long term, when such variations on the industry’s output exist in the short term?

Given those circumstances, employers have not been involved in apprenticeships as much they would have wished to, and they have not been involved as much as the board or the unions would have wished them to. Everybody accepts that a contractual employment relationship between the apprentice and the employer is the best way forward.

The difficulty arises, however, when there is a social objective to training — the need to provide individuals with access to opportunities. Therefore, should apprenticeships be based around the narrow needs, as the industry sees them, of what its volumes are in the short to medium term, or should they be based around the degree to which individuals are able to avail of opportunities to fulfil their potential, which is a legitimate objective?

In our discussions with employers and trade unions, which Allan will elaborate on, we have sought, within those constraints, to find a way for people to agree that individuals should be employed as an apprentice and to examine other models that are used throughout the British Isles — in Scotland, England, and the Republic — to see whether one could fit within Training for Success. We acknowledge that the Department for Employment and Learning’s objectives — examining the totality of social and economic needs — are slightly different to looking a narrow sector requirement for what it requires for its workforce.

Mr Allan McMullen (Construction Industry Training Board):

As Tony said, during the review of the Jobskills programme, we facilitated a fundamental review of construction craft apprenticeships, excluding plumbing, mechanical services and electrical. Although CITB is responsible for plumbing apprenticeships, the Sector Skills Council has taken responsibility for that as well as mechanical services and electrical. Therefore, I refer only to construction craft — carpentry, joinery, bricklaying, plastering, painting and decorating, roofing, and so forth.

We carried out the review with employer bodies, including the Construction Employers Federation, the Federation of Master Builders, other employers’ bodies, the unions, the colleges, the private training providers, Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) officials, and the CITB board and its committees. Eventually, all parties agreed to an apprenticeship programme, which it was hoped would lead to the employment of all construction craft apprentices. As Tony said, that is really what we are all trying to achieve.

That agreed programme was based on an initial minimum pre-apprenticeship period of 12 weeks, during which potential apprentices would acquire basic practical skills in their chosen trade, and receive basic health and safety awareness prior to starting on site. Employers were concerned that young people would have practical skills before arriving on site, and would be properly trained in health and safety. After the 12-week programme, they would be employed and return to college on a day-release programme.

However, no sooner had the programme been agreed than necessary compromises had to be made to accommodate a variety of stakeholders: the colleges’ resource problems resulted in only three days a week being available for class contact; the Education and Training Inspectorate insisted that training in essential skills should start immediately; the qualifications-awarding body expanded the qualification, and the DEL programme permitted on-site work experience without employment, which was similar to the model of the Jobskills programme.

Those factors compromised the time and resources available for teaching practical skills, particularly at the beginning of the training programme. The need for the early attainment of basic practical skills must be understood in the context of the method by which the industry pays the main construction trades. I will elaborate on that now, because it is important to understand how these specific trades differ from other industry sectors, and from the electrical and plumbing sectors.

The main contractors invariably engage tradesmen through a subcontract system, whereby the subcontractors are paid for the amount of work that they do. That piecework means that bricklayers are paid for every brick that they lay; joiners for the amount of doors that they hang; and plasterers by the square metre of plaster applied. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for a young person with no rudimentary practical skills to slot into that type of production system without appreciably compromising the tradesman’s productivity and, consequently, earnings. That is the main difference between those trades and every other trade in all the other sectors, and it is fundamental to the success or otherwise of an apprenticeship programme.

However, there was one main reason that the Joint Council for the Building and Civil Engineering Industry ( Northern Ireland) — that is the body that comprises the Construction Employers Federation and the unions, and oversees construction workers’ wages, and terms and conditions — effectively withdrew its support for the scheme. It could not encourage employers to employ apprentices at the Joint Council’s agreed wage rate of £141 a week. The difficulty was that young people were also going to be made available to the industry free of charge; that was also the fundamental problem with the Jobskills programme.

We fully understand DEL’s position that all young people must be given a training opportunity, but the problem is that some young people are, effectively, providing free labour but the industry is expected to pay £141 a week for an employed apprentice. The problem, therefore, is the twin-track approach: employed apprentices without any regulation of their wages, and unemployed trainees who are on site but not receiving any payment. Neither of the two groups has practical skills or health and safety training.

In a strange and perverse way, that undermines the credibility of the same young people on whom the industry depends for its future. When young people with no skills appear on site, the employers will naturally not agree to employ them because of that very reason.

The problem is that more young people are being trained than the industry is prepared to employ. The fundamental problem is what to do with those who cannot get jobs. The Committee may be interested in some figures to illustrate that issue. In September 2008, the combined intake of all college and training providers was 1,912. Of those, 438 found employment and the remainder — about 75% — were in the Training for Success unemployed stream. The problem with the 400 people who got jobs is that there is no regulation on their wage, so they could be getting paid anything from £40 a week to whatever; it is very unlikely that they are getting the recognised wage rate.

In the meantime, CITB and the Construction Employers Federation have been researching arrangements in other regions of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. I know that Ciarán Fox has given evidence to the Committee on a number of occasions about apprenticeships. He and I have been working together very closely on that research and have met several people, including our colleagues from England, the manager of the construction skills apprenticeship programme in England, as well as the managers of the programmes in Scotland and Wales. All spent a day with us here in Northern Ireland.

We have been to see FÁS in Dublin and have met the chief executive of the Electrical Training Trust and the chief executive of Plumbing and Mechanical Services Training. We also met the chief executive of the Engineering Training Council, David Hatton, who attended last week’s Committee meeting. We wanted to hear about their respective schemes.

Over the years, we have looked at various schemes internationally. We have been to Holland and Germany. In fact, my colleagues have been to Hong Kong and Seoul in Korea when attending the skills competition, so we have considered a lot of apprenticeship schemes worldwide. Of the common themes in all those programmes, the primary one was the system of employment from day one. We are, probably, the only nation that does not promote that or does not use that system.

An initial period of full-time off-the-job training was also core to those schemes, and there was only one scheme was available. Of all of the issues, that is probably the most important. There should be only one scheme available for a person who wants to become an apprentice, and that should lead to employment — end of story. There should not be another scheme in which someone can get on the building sites without being properly employed.

Our scheme, probably due more to funding than anything else, is perceived as a three-year scheme, whereas all of the good schemes that have the best practice are four-year schemes. I remember the days when there were five-year schemes and, many years ago, there were seven-year apprenticeships. Anyway, the best practice appears to be the four-year scheme.

The main thing that we noticed about those schemes was that there was a strong combination of practical work and theory in the training programme. That is another key issue. There is a problem in that colleges must provide essential skills training, theory, and health-and-safety training. That is understandable, and the industry supports that. However, because of the resource issues that they face, not enough time is being spent on the development of practical skills in the college workshops. Colleges are well geared up for providing such training; they have workshops and skilled staff who are able to teach those skills. However, because it is all driven into a small period of time, colleges must deliver on the non-practical side of training.

Therefore, we are hoping that the federation, through Ciarán Fox, will come up with a preferred programme within the next couple of weeks. In fact, Tony and I were looking at a draft copy of that programme this morning. That is where we are. DEL has done a very good job under the circumstances but, unfortunately, no sooner was all that introduced than the downturn happened. Now, the problem is not only about getting new people on board, it is about getting jobs for the people who were made redundant during the downturn.

Mr Doran:

In relation to how policies such as this may be carried forward, it has always been one of the objectives of Government to integrate Government policies across different Departments. The Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) has already announced that, for new contracts worth over a particular amount, there will be a requirement for contractors to demonstrate that they have a minimum number of apprentices involved. There has been a recent announcement about more infrastructure expenditure. The industry can deal with most costs as long as they apply to everyone — that is, as long as there is a level playing field.

If there is a requirement on contractors to demonstrate that they are responsible for employed apprentices among their chain of contractors and subcontractors, it might well be a way of ensuring that we get the minimum number of apprentices through. It might also be a way of ensuring that employers are connected in the process. Therefore, if a large construction company has a different number of suppliers and subcontractors through the supply chain, it may be required to demonstrate that a specified minimum number of apprentices were employed in that supply chain. The board could have the facilitating role in that process, so that we not only get the infrastructure that we require for the future by employing people today, but we are training for tomorrow.

Mr McMullen:

It is hard to get an accurate figure for the number of redundant apprentices. The official figure is quite low, because many of them have moved away and are working in Scotland, Wales or England. We have taken some measures to assist apprentices who have been made redundant.

With the South Eastern Regional College, we are developing a tailored programme for redundant apprentices that could be rolled out to the wider further education sector. As part of that programme, young people who present themselves at the college will receive a review of their progress in their apprenticeship and NVQ. They will also be kept up to date with essential skills and given the opportunity to enhance their IT skills, including, if relevant, computer-aided design. Importantly, those apprentices could be taught skills in other trades, particularly those that are required for them to transfer from the housing sector to the civil engineering sector, which is where the work will be in the short term. There is a very good qualification called the general construction operative (GCO), which deals with skills in civil engineering.

As Tony said, we changed our grant scheme for employers. An employer used to get a grant when an apprentice achieved NVQ level 2 or NVQ level 3. We have changed that grant to a weekly payment to try to ease cash flow for contractors. In Great Britain, an apprenticeship matching service has been established, in which apprentices register and are matched with employers who can take them on so that they are able to finish their training and gain qualifications.

Tony mentioned the Government procurement policy, which includes the employment of apprentices. For example, we have been talking to Derry City Council about the proposed Foyle footbridge, which will cost £16 million. There is a requirement in the contract that the successful contractor must employ eight apprentices — one apprentice for every £2 million of work. There is also a requirement that the successful contractor must employ an unemployed person for every £1 million of work. We have been working with the local college and Derry City Council to try to pave the way for the contractor, once appointed.

Similarly, we have spoken to the contractor that was appointed to build the new hospital at Enniskillen — P Elliott and Company from Cavan has made a commitment to employ 48 apprentices through its supply chain during the three-year contract, which is very encouraging. There are other examples of such practice.

We have supported and provided grant aid, and we received grant aid from DEL to encourage project-based training. The contractors for the Belfast schools project — Farrans, H&J Martin and the Patton Group — have appointed a training co-ordinator for all of the training for all the workforce, including apprentices, during that project. The first phase of that project involves five schools, so that is very encouraging.

We will also work within our ConstructionSkills partnership to review the apprenticeship framework. One big problem is that, if apprentices cannot finish their NVQs because of redundancy, they are unable to prove their competence. We have spoken about the possibility of having simulated work off site.

I must say that that is not gaining a great deal of support. They reckon that people really need to prove their competence on site. However, we are considering that matter, too.

We also have facilitated a number of employer-led modern apprenticeships in roofing and flooring, and we have just completed one in stonemasonry. We take over the role of managing agent, when there are maybe only eight or 10 apprentices. As Tony mentioned, in certain circumstances, we will consider the possibility of employing apprentices directly, particularly those who have been made redundant. Some of them have nearly reached the end of their apprenticeship, so it may be possible for CITB to get them into employment and hire out their services to contractors who are willing to give them work of the right nature and thus enable them to get their qualifications. We must check the legality of such an arrangement. However, we are putting in place a range of measures, which mirror those being proposed in Great Britain, but, of course, it receives a lot more funding than we do.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Before I open up the floor to members, I have a few questions. Tony, could you provide the Committee with some further information on some of the issues that you raised — perhaps not today, but at a later date. You mentioned that your counterparts in GB receive statutory money and non-statutory money. That obviously means that there will be opportunities in GB that are not available to employers in Northern Ireland.

Mr Doran:

There are two aspects to this matter; one is Government funding, and the other is processes such as Train to Gain and other funding mechanisms that are directly available to employers in England. CITB (GB) acts as the focus for those in the construction industry. There are no such funding streams available in Northern Ireland at present. However, I am quite happy to provide the Committee with further information.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Perhaps you could forward us your thoughts on that, outlining the advantages and what employers in Northern Ireland might be losing out on. I would be interested to read them.

I have two more questions. First, the Department has introduced a policy of fostering in circumstances where there are redundancies. Allan said that CITB might be able help apprentices who are close to completing their apprenticeship, but if an apprentice is the first year of his or her apprenticeship, where does the fostering kick in?

Secondly, how do companies support apprentices when they are on site, in a practical environment? Is there an infrastructure to support apprentices in their efforts to gain qualifications, helping them to work through their portfolio and giving instructions on specific skills?

Mr McMullen:

We have very few examples of construction companies participating in fostering programmes. The bottom line is that the sites are closed, so the apprentices who are being made redundant invariably come from the housing sector. As the Committee knows, the gates are closed, and no work of any description is being carried out. Therefore, the fostering opportunities in the construction industry are very limited. My staff have found no examples of employer participation in those programmes. There may be some examples of which we have not heard, but the opportunities are very limited. If I can get any more figures that may give a more accurate answer, I will forward them to the Committee.

As regards the infrastructure on site, to be honest, the industry really looks to the training provider to provide apprentices with all the support that they need to gain qualifications. Certainly, the site provides the practical skills — there is no question about that. The majority of those young people are placed with subcontractors — squads of joiners, bricklayers or plasterers. They work with some sound guys, but it would be foolish for me to say that there was a support mechanism for the apprentices other than the fact that they are being shown how to do the work practically. However, any training that relates to qualifications depends on the college.

Mr Easton:

I cannot say that I am an expert in this matter, but I will give it a shot. You mentioned that construction workers — brickies and plasterers — are paid according to the amount of work they do, for example, by how many bricks laid or square metres plastered. Would it not be easier to employ apprentices on an hourly rate?

You said that companies employ unskilled people because it is cheaper for them to do so. Is that not dangerous in the construction industry?

Mr Doran:

I will address the first part of your question. Under revenue regulations made in the 1970s, Governments promoted self-employment. Since then the relationship between the employer and the individual on the site has broken down. This system has been created by the taxation framework.

It used to be the case that health-and-safety standards in Northern Ireland were among the lowest in Europe, but they have improved a great deal. Government, CITB and the industry have set a minimum health-and-safety training standard that must be met before people go on site. However, employment of unskilled people is unsafe. One of the problems in the training system is that it is difficult for employers to determine who has a specific qualification. Generally, the system of an individual getting his card on the basis on an NVQ has diminished over the years, particularly since the self-employment process is allowed by Government.

Mr McMullen:

It would be better if workers were paid on an hourly rate. Firms that have big joinery workshops — such as Mivan — have very good apprenticeship schemes. The apprentice goes to the same location every morning and works in the joinery shop under a controlled environment. However, typically, a young lad in the industry goes to the end of the lane in the morning and gets into a van with three or four other guys who are self-employed. As Tony has said, that is the culture in the industry, particularly in Northern Ireland and the south of England. In Scotland there is a very good apprenticeship scheme, but there is a stronger tradition and culture of direct employment. Big contractors in Northern Ireland — the names you see on the cranes — do not employ people directly, but on a subcontract basis.

A story I often relate is that, when the Belfast Waterfront Hall was being built, the programme of work required 65 bricklayers for an eight-week period. Prior to the eight weeks, and afterwards, no bricklayers were needed: the bricks were laid in that time, and away went the bricklayers. The glaziers or concrete workers then came along. That is the nature of the work. The bricklayers slot in with the other contractors. That is the culture in the industry, and it is not conducive to a good apprenticeship scheme. However, we need to work with the industry; it is not going to change the way it employs people through the subcontract system. We must fit into its regime.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

It has been interesting to hear your comments. I want to hear more about your work with the South Eastern Regional College. Can you explain more about that? Will it be rolled out across all the colleges in Northern Ireland?

Mrs McGill:

Mr Doran said that 90% of the CITB’s income is from a statutory levy — I have raised the issue with Mr McMullen previously. The point has been made to me that people do not see what you do with that money. I had a meeting with Mr McMullen in order to tease out some of those issues, which I mention today, because Mr Doran has set the context.

During the presentation, it was indicated that changes are planned in what the CITB does. If that is the case, it is welcome. There was a reference to the absence of direct training, which I have found to be an issue. From the conversations that I have had with people, it appears that they cannot see what they get for the levy.

On apprentices, to some extent, I heard, and I understand, Mr McMullen’s point about essential skills. In many ways, it is the Department’s flagship programme, but it is difficult, and it is creating problems. He is not the first, and will not be the last, to say so. Has the Committee discussed that issue fully enough to resolve it?

Mr Doran:

Before Allan deals with the detail, I have a broad observation on the comments about how people perceive value for money. I believe that the CITB was not clear enough in telling people what it was doing. Communicating with levy payers takes time, energy and money. The board, perhaps, concentrated more on meeting training needs than telling people what it was doing.

Since the comments or criticisms — whichever phrase you wish to use — we have gone out of our way to tell levy payers what we are doing. The CITB will send them a bulletin in the next week to 10 days that will tell them what it is doing and what they are getting for their money. In recent years, the board has, in broad terms, paid out about 50% of its income by way of grant. That figure may be slightly higher this year, but it will be within the margin.

The board responded to the industry about direct training. During the upturn, firms knew what levels of skills they needed to meet their growth, development and changes as enterprises. Larger companies recognised that they needed to train workers in “x, y and z” skills. The training requirements changed rapidly from company to company, depending on their needs. Therefore, we facilitated that through grants.

Equally, perhaps, we gave too much credence to that approach, because the smaller companies do not have the level of sophistication to realise what they need. The service that the CITB provides to them must be slightly more paternalistic. The CITB must tell smaller companies the minimum training needed by people on site and by the companies’ internal management. We have responded to those comments and are putting appropriate procedures in place. We will see whether the response to the changes is good or bad, and we will change and adjust the programme accordingly.

We are focusing on communicating with levy payers and taking up opportunities such as this, to explain to MLAs what we are doing, and why. I hope that that is a positive response to the comments.

Mr McMullen:

I will take the two questions on apprenticeships. In relation to Claire’s point about essential skills, the problem in the early days was that essential skills were taught as a separate course. Young people were being taught English and maths that they had never done, and had not wanted to do, at school. They had joined apprenticeships in the hope of escaping the school environment, only to be returned to it.

However, first of all, the construction industry supports, and recognises the need for, essential skills. A contractor once told me that the complicated door sets that are made nowadays arrive ready-made in a frame, complete with locks and hinges and cost a lot of money — up to £600 each. He said that they also come with a massive amount of instructions on installation. Therefore, there is no doubt that builders need essential skills. There is no question about that. The problem has been that the industry wants apprentices’ practical skills to be honed more quickly than we believe it takes them to gain their essential skills. They have time to gain their essential skills by the end of their apprenticeships without compromising the need to learn practical skills at an early stage.

The other side of that is that we have recently published new guidance on essential skills, which points out that essential skills can be contextualised into apprentices’ work. Therefore, instead of asking people how many tins there are in 200-odd cartons of six tins of beans, they will be taught how to count bricks, how to measure rooms, and so forth. One colleague always talks about the young lad who plays darts; if you asked him to subtract back from 501, he could not do it in his head, but if he needed to get 98 with three darts, he could work that out quickly. That is a lesson in contextualisation. The industry has worked closely with the Department and colleges to contextualise essential skills. Somehow, we must find an answer. I believe that that may be the answer: to teach individuals those skills as part of their trade.

Mr Doran:

May I just make an observation on that matter? I believe that FÁS incorporates essential skills all the way through its practical courses. It does not view them as separate processes. In its employer-led training programmes, practical skills and essential skills are integrated.

Mr McMullen:

Recently, I met all of the principals of the six new colleges. It was the first time that I had met Ken Webb, who is the new principal of the South Eastern Regional College. The college has taken the initiative to see what it can do, not only for apprentices, but for construction workers in order to enhance their skills and employability, so that when the economic upturn happens, they will be more equipped. The college is keen for us to help it develop the programme.

First, we decided that we must consider doing a skills audit for each individual in order to determine what skills he has; what stage he is at; and what he needs to do to complete the qualification. That was the first phase. Picking up on essential skills, we had to determine whether that individual has those skills or what stage he has reached.

The industry is moving in the direction of modern, off-site methods of construction. These days, bathroom pods, for example, are being built off site. That is computerised. Therefore, I want more on-site construction workers to gain computer skills. Many of them will not have any. In fact, for certain subcontractors who have no work, computer skills — such as knowledge of accounts packages, and so forth — would help them to run their businesses.

Tony and I have also been involved for many years in the establishment of the construction skills register. Individuals receive a card which requires that they undertake one day of health-and-safety training. Their competence is measured against the relevant NVQ. Although they do not achieve an NVQ, their competence is measured against that standard. Therefore, a guy who receives a blue card is trained to NVQ level-2 standard, whereas a guy who receives a gold card has reached NVQ level-3 standard.

The scheme has been a fantastic success, with participation from over 100,000 construction workers. The problem has been that the industry feels that it has done everything it needs to do once someone has received a card, but that is not the case. The construction skills register provides only basic health-and-safety training. Therefore, we have encouraged colleges to provide additional training in the three key areas that are major causes of accidents on building sites — slips and trips, falls from height, and work in and around excavations. We have asked colleges to provide additional health-and-safety training in those particular areas.

The other area is multi-skilling. Repair and maintenance is quite a big sector. Tony and I met the chairman and the chief executive of the Housing Executive recently to discuss skills needs for maintenance and repair. There is no reason why a joiner could not be taught to do a bit of wall and floor tiling, concrete work or other modest skill that is useful in the repair and maintenance sector.

A joiner, whose work on housing sites has included hanging doors, fitting architraves and skirting, and doing all of the first and second fix work, but not any concrete shuttering, could be trained in that skill. That will be one of the main skills required in the civil engineering sector; and the line that we have been taking with the college is that such multi-skilling is important.

We are due to meet DEL officials at the beginning of next week to discuss funding. The principal of the South Eastern Regional College, Mr Webb, and his staff have identified the possibility of a programme whereby apprentices can train for up to 15 hours a week without compromising their benefits. An unemployed worker could work for three days, and provided that the total hours worked amount to no more than 15, he would still receive unemployment benefit. The programme has been devised to incorporate working for slightly less than 15 hours a week over a 12-week period. I asked whether the colleges would be happy to roll out that programme to the entire construction sector, and they are doing that now. In fact, that specific issue was debated at a meeting of the construction heads last week; and a fair amount of work is going on in that area.

Ms Lo:

The new measures that you have taken in response to last year’s debate must be welcomed by everyone, particularly the smaller companies, some of which feel aggrieved that they do not get value for money from the board. I commend you on taking measures to address those issues so quickly.

You said that a major problem is still being caused by the twin-track approach, whereby employers who can get free labour from the colleges do not want to pay £140 a week to an apprentice. How can we address the problem of pre-apprenticeship students who, instead of one day a week, work for three days a week?

Mr McMullen:

We have considered ways to address that problem. The answer may be to impose a limit or control mechanism whereby, as soon as the students start their work experience, they have clear guidelines on what they are allowed or not allowed to do, the remuneration they should receive, and so forth. Perhaps a limit should also be placed on the number of days that they can work, so that the situation is not a free-for-all.

On one hand, employers say that they need practical skills, but, on the other hand one employer recently told me that it is good to have someone on site to learn practical skills because he can see how the young person is progressing; he called that a three-month interview. There must, therefore, be a balance between proper pre-apprenticeship training before the young people are employed, and free labour. The way forward is to achieve a balance: the time spent working should be limited and there must be clear guidelines.

Ms Lo:

I find it incredible that colleges are given the contract, and the money, to run the pre-apprenticeship programme, the idea of which is that young people are kept in college to learn essential or practical skills before being sent out.

Mr Doran:

Part of the culture that must be changed is that employers are less involved than they should be. At present, the process is between DEL and the colleges, and employers’ involvement is ancillary. Until employers become engaged at the core of the process and employment becomes part of the process, the situation will not change. There must be the opportunity for both. The board, working with employers and the trade unions, is trying to find an answer to take to DEL. It is a difficult problem, but we will not find the answer without involving the employers.

Ms Lo:

To follow on from that, there must be some on-site teachers, or people who can adopt that role, to teach the youngsters. As you said, you subcontract people who calculate how many doors they have to hang to receive their pay package at the end of the week. They are not going to spend time teaching the young apprentice who has arrived on site. There must be some on-site teaching from somewhere. Colleges or employers should employ someone specifically to do that.

I went through training in social work, leading on to a placement, which used to be six-months long— I do not know how long it is now. We were all assigned a practice teacher on-site, and someone from the social services or a charity would be watching the trainees doing the job and writing reports about them. During those six months, as well as learning from one’s colleagues one learns from the practice teacher, rather than from college.

Mr McMullen:

There probably is an informal approach to that in the industry; a lot of the self-employed guys take a pride in the young people they are training. That is not recognised in any formal sense, but it certainly goes on.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Peripatetic instructors have never been part of the infrastructure, have they?

Mr McMullen:

What we have tried to do over the years is encourage employers to set up their own in-company assessors. We provided grant aid for those qualifications, but the industry never really took it up. It saw that aspect of the work as the colleges’ responsibility.

Mr Doran:

By and large, a lot of the larger companies now have in-house training facilities. It has changed, but slowly.

Mr McMullen:

In summary, we are close to agreeing a way forward. The employers — particularly Ciarán Fox and the Construction Employers Federation — have taken a very responsible attitude to the debate that has been ongoing over the last couple of years and recognise that the way forward is to establish a good apprenticeship scheme. I am quite confident that within this year we will come up with a scheme that everybody will buy into.

Mr Doran:

We hope by March 2009 to have established an agreed process between the board, unions and employers, outlining the preferred options, and providing the costs for those options. At the end of the day, the situation will, to a large extent, be driven by money.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Are you happy enough that whatever programme is finally launched will benchmark favourably against other best practice in Northern Ireland, and indeed, other best practice in other parts of the world?

Mr McMullen:

Yes, I believe that. When our apprentices go to Great Britain to take part in the UK skills competitions, they usually come back with a hatful of medals. We are definitely performing well when it comes to pitting our skills against those in Great Britain. The Republic of Ireland has done exceptionally well in the world skills competitions, but a lot more resources have been put into training those people for the competitions. There is also a four-year apprenticeship programme in the Republic, which provides employment from day one — that is a better programme than ours. I think that the programme that Ciarán and I will come up with will compare favourably with any other scheme that we have come across.

Mr Doran:

We will send the Committee copies.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Judging by your last remarks, it seems that this is a similar situation to that faced in education. We are producing people with very good quality A levels and very good graduates, yet there a lot of people who have no qualifications whatsoever.

I thank you on behalf of the Committee for coming today. We look forward to whatever it is you finally produce. If you will share that with us, we would be grateful. We would also be grateful for anything you can produce on the situation in GB, and where Northern Ireland employers might be losing out.

Mr Doran:

I would be very happy to do that. Thank you for your time.

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