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The blight of experienced construction workers? by Bruce Ogilvie, Operations Director

As an owner of a fire protection business, having the right people to do the job has become increasingly important to both Ogilvie Fire Protection Ltd, and the customers that we provide our services to. Our team, collectively, has over 300 years of specific fire protection experience, between the almost 40 sub-contractors working for us. For our business, we agree with Albert Einstein.

The only source of knowledge is experien

We are a business in a sector that has been plagued by poor workmanship, lack of customer focus, and less value placed on the work being produced for sign off. A pure focus on the bottom line, has left many sites in the UK, PFI, public and private, requiring revisits for either a full refitting or fixing of previously badly fitted fire protection - this is simply not good enough in terms of the safety of the millions of people in buildings where the work has been sub-standard at best. 

Having worked for 15 years in skills and assessment, I have a theory regarding this, that I will share with our peer group of fire protection companies. To present my theory, it is necessary to present my case. This is now much more critical, for me and many others, following the tragic disaster at Grenfell, and I hope this makes a case for measuring skills differently in our industry.


Context - Labour skills agenda, The Blair/Brown years


This is not a political statement that I am making, but should at least leave many of you questioning how we do things now, compared to what many see in education as a Halcyon period for sector specific skills development in the UK. The Labour Government began with much trailblazing in skills to try and ensure that the UK would have the future skills demanded for a 21st Century economy. 


One of the areas where there was masses of new input, was in the development of Sector Skills Councils. Here is the brief for those sector skills Councils (SSCs).


Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) are employer-led organisations that cover specific industries in the United Kingdom. They have six key goals:

  • to support employers in developing and managing apprenticeship standards

  • to reduce skills gaps and shortages and improve productivity

  • to boost the skills of their sector workforces

  • to improve learning supply

  • promote professional practices among those organisations that are sector based and who set and maintain skills standards

  • manage the standards of those Employer-Led Partnerships which maintain these standards to ensure high quality


SSCs aim to achieve these goals by developing an understanding of the future skills needs in their industry, and contributing to the development of National Occupational Standards, the design and approval of apprenticeship frameworks and the New Apprenticeship Standards and creating Sector Qualification Strategies. There are currently nineteen SSCs, covering about 80 per cent of the British workforce. SSCs are licensed by the government through the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). [Wikipedia, 2016]


This all looks good on the surface, and until we had a change of government, subsidy from Westminster ensured that the SSC's tried to meet all of the above. When we had a change of government, the focus changed.

Austerity begins to turn the screw on Quangos


As part of the current UK Government's policy on austerity, many of the bodies set up during the Labour years, were put under closer scrutiny, and as a result, the once government funded SSCs were told look towards models of self-sustainability. This is where the rot set in, with the bottom line, having to drive the requirements for the Sector Skills Councils we have today, rather than the needs of the people it formerly represented.


The bottom line, is the only bottom line


The bottom line has to come from somewhere, and it is not only my fear, but that of thousands of people in the construction industry, that the majority of the bottom line is coming from the wrong place, the people who have been working in the sector for decades!


Unless this model changes, we will have bigger skills and knowledge gaps than we had 20 years ago, when these organisations were conceived. Like everything Conservative, market forces need to dictate whether CITB sinks or swims, and if there isn't a market, you must therefore use your influence to create a 'false market'.


 A Challenge to the original brief for SSC's - CITB 2017 is now a problem and not a solution.


Key goal one - to support employers in developing and managing apprenticeship standards


So, before the SSC's, what we are led to believe is that there were no standards in fire protection; no regulation, no manufacturers had specifications, no company had quality assurance, and no one doing the job, knew what they were doing. CITB seem to have created a 'Year Zero' policy in relation to the many men and women working in this specific area of construction, by creating new qualifications, that they say will produce the skills that the sector needs, mostly through the modern apprenticeships scheme. 


So a set of standards was developed, and now a person can do an apprenticeship and know everything that others have been learning/acquiring over 20, 30, 40 years, and be 'work ready' to 'know everything', be 'all seeing', 'all knowing' fire protection Jedis within 6-12 months, culminating in the award of a certificate and a skills card that you have at best 20 hours of observed assessment, that proves you can do the job. 


So, the standards must be working, as if I straw polled 100 Senior Managers in construction, they would agree, that they would rather have these people working, and replace all the others with experience, because that counts for nothing? 


NO F*CK*NG WAY! Should be the answer you are searching for - or at least you would hope so.


You would be wrong! The SSC's apparently have been working with advisers, many of them from major construction companies in the UK, and they seem to be backing this madness.


Paul Ogilvie, fire protection professional

  • 35 years experience

  • Over 150 completed projects

  • Never called back to do work again

  • Gets work based on his reputation

  • Out of work for less than 12 months in a 35-year period

  • Knows everything to do with the application of both passive & structural fire protection

  • Co-owns a business with over 40 sub-contractors


He holds skills cards as a Taper & Jointer and Fire Curtain Installer which both expired September 2017. His CSCS cards cannot be renewed by CITB, as these skills have just disappeared (I'm being ironic). The course of action to continue work: sign up for an NVQ in passive fire protection which will cover things he has done everyday for 35 years. 


Cost* = £1700.00 for Qualification on sign up, £30.00 for temporary card, and on completion, £30.00 for another card showing his qualification.


*Just as an FYI, the £1700.00 may be funded by UK Government, but that's still £1700.00 that a training provider gets for essentially teaching granny how to suck eggs. 


We hear about how inefficient the UK is at saving money. FACTS: 1) This is a waste of money 2) This is a farce 3) This is counted in Government stats as a 'new learner' 4) This provides Private Training Providers with 'FREE money' 5) This is all smoke and mirrors to make profit for PTPs (Private Training Providers) and is a misrepresentation of the facts.


In summary, Paul already does this job and has worked for 35 years doing this job, but has the stress being placed upon him of having to undertake an NVQ (aka Not Very Qualified by 'true experts' in the construction industry).


Odds on kick backs


I would also hazard a bet, I can't say for sure, but when you call CITB for advice, they simply say "NO CARD/NO WORK" and "shall I sign you up for a C&G NVQ?" I suspect that for CITB, this is a standard practice - a kick back on the certification upon Paul and others completing this NVQ, having made the referall. 

Further Context  

  • We have 35+ people that this affects.

  • All with years of experience

  • This costs the UK Tax Payer almost £60,000 to undertake this pointless exercise

Does this sound like value for money? NOPE.............Me Neither


CITB 2017, causing a problem through short sighted focus on 'their' Bottom Line (Survival)


Key Goal 2 - to reduce skills gaps and shortages and improve productivity


Moving on from point Goal 1, to Goal 2. The above scenario is very real, and fire protection is not the only place where these underhanded practices are taking place. 


There are many other skills areas where people with masses of experience are having to face leaving the Industry, as they either A) Can't face going back into education, often decades after deciding they never liked Exams or B) Can't source funding for the qualification that CITB say 'you need'. Thousands of people are being presented with CITBs judgement, that current skills cards are NO LONGER VALID, irrespective of the previous track record and experience of a highly skilled person, being taken into consideration.


This is A) Unethical B) Poor Industry Practice C) Demoralising and D) A breach of people's rights to work.






Key Goal 3 - to boost the skills of their sector workforces


As we have seen with the first 2 Key Goals, this is not a model that does this.

In reality, what happens is that those experienced people, not able or not confident enough to undertake the Qualification (Bottom Line Commodity of CITB, PTPS and Awarding Bodies), will leave and never return, and the sector suffers a major shortage in both skills and experience.






Key Goal 4 - to improve learning supply


For me, and many others who understand the metrics that SSCs and PTPs are measured against, this is a 'brilliant success'. There is no doubt that there is a greater supply of learning than there was before. It's not 'real' or 'actual learning', but more importantly 'it's the kind of learning that looks good on A) A balance sheet or B) On those stats for the Minister for Skills and Innovation. 


I must say that this is an innovative way to make money and hit targets for those lucky enough to be focused on these two key, measured success criteria. Print on Demand Solutions Providers are also in for a bumper period with all those 'new learner..haha..kerching!' certificates and 'LMAO, CSCS skills cards!'. 


The problem for me, is that CITB are supposed to be there to represent the 'skilled' and 'yet to be skilled' folks in UK construction. They are also supposed to be objective and neutral. 


Working to a bottom line for self-sustainability creates a massive conflict of interest!


Bad news for the UK Government - The supply of learning is being distorted, by the counting of highly skilled 'new learners'. But I suspect no one cares, and all are complicit in making sure the smoke and mirrors continue to create an illusion, that more 'skilled' people are joining construction. Only problem is, that it's the same people who have been doing the work for decades.



Key Goal 5 - promote professional practices among those organisations that are sector based and who set and maintain skills standards.


I really have few words - this is where all of us who commit ourselves to improving the businesses we own, run and provide employment in well paid jobs i.e. double/treble the rates of the national living wage. We all work to Standards that exist already, the inconvenient truth, is that these standards do not count towards the bottom line of CITB, PTPS or awarding bodies. They therefore cannot be assumed to be of any value, especially in a safety critical area of work like fire protection (sarcasm rather than irony, FFS).


  • Building regulations are minimum standards for design, construction and alterations to virtually every building. They are developed by the government and approved by Parliament.


Another Conflict of Interest - Profit First


As we have discovered recently, in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell, there are other agendas associated with the bottom line that stop building regulations going far enough. This coupled with the depletion of Local Authority Clerk of Works roles, in the most as a result of austerity, see these standards that are there to protect the public, being badly implemented in safety critical areas where work is conducted. 


Add PFI into the equation where all is about the bottom line, then we have a greater recipe for disaster. PFI is an example of why not to let private money and shareholders have anything to do with the construction of any built assets, sitting in the public domain. Done quickly, badly and in need of constant remedial works.


These standards should be lived and breathed by every 'great construction business'. This should drive the quality assurance from architect to completion, but it doesn't. The outcomes of this initiative has been to drive down both wages and quality. 


In fire protection, I would predict a decade of work to fix the problems caused by having lack of building control.


Manufacturers specification - A data sheet that describes the technical characteristics of an item or product as designed and/or produced. It can be published by a manufacturer to help people choose products or to help use the products.


In all areas of work in construction, manufacturers provide technical specifications for the 'best practice' methodology for fitting/fixing their products. In fire protection, the specification is dictated by tests conducted to offer best protection from fire in a building, for periods of 30 mins, 1 Hour, 2 Hours or what is dictated by the project being worked on. These again should be linked with building regulations to come up with a best practice for quality assurance. 


Should we put a cost on saving lives?


This would no doubt add to cost of having fire protection fitted with quality in mind, but when this about protecting people, saving life and avoiding catastrophic spreading of smoke or fire, must be a price worth paying. This is also a better way to measure skill/knowledge of Individuals, than an NVQ, as is specific to every single contract that will be worked on.


In the UK, SSCs, exam boards and PTPs don't have the knowledge or skill to measure skills in this way, and thus, I suspect that their focus will again be in the wrong areas, with main focus being on self-sustainability & profitability. 


I am hoping that one of the outcomes of Grenfell will be that building regulations, coupled with more manufacturers technical data and training, are seen as the most critical, as opposed to training that currently adds no or little value to the sector. It may be that organisations like FIRAS become the Regulator for fire protection inside of construction, and allow their own card scheme to become the one that is needed for fire protection of the built environment?


Key Goal 6 - manage the standards of those Employer-Led Partnerships which maintain these standards to ensure high quality.


This is again an area with potential conflict of interest. The standards set out by CITB in terms of qualifications, are not the required standards that drive quality. Quality is, or should be a core skill, behaviour that is actioned, measured and developed by employers over periods of time. CITB are not in a position to dictate quality assurance for our business, as they simply do not understand our business.


We choose to embrace new technology to manage all aspects of quality in our business. Our QA is focused on building regulation, manufacturers technical data, aesthetics of finish and customer satisfaction.


Technology is a massive enabler of great Quality Assurance.


Paper, an 18th Century QA solution, for 21st Century problems


I often feel like we live in the 18th Century, with many people choosing to use paper/digital Cameras and Post Office services as the way to Manage QA. This is madness, and CITB are too far removed to know what is best fit. They are light years behind in terms of digital support for business and as such, cannot drive the sector towards how to improve quality, when it lacks the knowledge to know the tech tools, use the Tech Tools or help to disseminate what are the best QA tools for the job. The only standards which they seem to be able to manage are those set in learning & assessment outcomes of outdated NVQs which disadvantage SMEs, restrict growth and don't recognise the skills and talent that many businesses already possess.


There are many great initiatives and innovation being tried by UK SMEs in construction, but because the agenda is being driven by FTSE listed 'large employers' and government funded PTPs, this is not something that will change the landscape positively.


In Summary, in my words

The above is my representation of what I see going on in the UK construction Industry, in a selfish agenda being pursued by a failed 'Labour Quango', given licence to do so, without any real legal grounds to do this.


Health & safety first


With the exception of the health & safety Test, which should be a legal requirement, CITB have no right to restrict access to work of experienced tradesmen, who are the lifeblood of the UK construction industry. In fact in the Queen's speech, which gives a mandate to CITB, makes no mention of the erosion of existing skills, 'decimation of existing trades through dishonest practices, counting thousands of experienced tradesmen as new learners, to meet government targets, but it's all happening - under the nose of a government that claims to be looking after UK tax payers money. 


The following quote from CITB would suggest that the opposite should be happening:


CITB Statement in relation to the 2015 Queens Speech, Steve Radley, Director of Policy & Partnerships at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), said:


"It’s great to see the Government  setting out its ambition for three million more apprenticeships. Employers and the Government now need to get together to work out how to deliver it."


I think that the Government may have been hoping for 3 million 'actual new' qualifications.


“The potential for developing skills and providing careers for the next generation is enormous, but we will only achieve this by setting out bold new ways to get there. This means finding better ways to attract new entrants, developing more desirable models for learners and employers and working with providers to help them deliver the training that industry needs."


The Bold New Ways of reaching the destination, attracting new entrants, desirable models for learners, is so wide of the mark in the provision of training the industry needs, that a whole rethink is due. This shouldn't be a model that promotes financial gain for the few, while compromising the livelihoods of the many highly skilled tradesmen currently being frozen out of the industry by what is an abuse of position and influence by CITB.


As a Learning Technology geek, I know that there is already technology for measuring and verifying the skills and experience of existing & future tradesmen, but while no one challenges CITB, these will not change the convenient working practices of CITB, PTPs or people making money from the misery that they are creating. 


“We look forward to working with the Government and employers to help deliver on this bold ambition.” 


The reality is that, unless we all as a collective in the Industry, begin to stand up and challenge CITB and the Government, that we will again under a Conservative watch, lose valuable skills for a generation. It's time for all of us, as business owners, sole traders, sub-contractors and individuals, to call out the positive discrimination of people who have dedicated to making the UK Construction, the best in the world.


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