The Construction Industry Training Board is a bit like the BBC: most people generally appreciate its existence, but few are entirely happy with the service – for which they have to pay, whether they consume it or not.

The role of the CITB has mutated over the years. It was set up by Act of Parliament in 1964 to deliver training for the construction industry – traditional trades like carpentry and brickwork, and operating machinery like cranes and excavators. Its home then was Bircham Newton, a former Royal Air Force base in Norfolk.

In the early part of the 21st century it became, briefly, CITB-ConstructionSkills with a wider remit to encourage employer engagement in training, provide labour market insights on future skills needs and develop standards and qualifications for the sector. It ran a network of National Construction Colleges around the country, of which Bircham Newton was just one.

This article was first published in the Dec/Jan 2021 issue of The Construction Index magazine. Sign up online.

It was instrumental in the creation of, and subsequently ran, the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) and the Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS). There was a right old rumpus about making experienced construction workers and crane drivers go back to school and prove themselves to some know-nothing with a clipboard, but the end goal of creating a construction industry with ‘professional’ qualifications was the vision – a vision that was broadly supported.

Then just when it seemed to be getting somewhere, the CITB decided that it didn’t want to be in the business of running card schemes, or even delivering training at all, and decided to withdraw itself from the front end of the industry.

This was all set out in a new business plan, called Vision 2020, published in November 2017 in response to its regular three-yearly consultation with industry. Securing industry support is essential for the CITB before the secretary of state can authorise it to collect the levy.

The 2017 process confirmed that the industry wanted the levy to continue but there was widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of the CITB and demand for significant reform.

Announcing the change of direction in 2017, chief executive Sarah Beale, who had only taken over the top job at the start of that year, said the restructuring of the organisation would create “the strategic, forward-looking and agile skills body that the industry is seeking”. In effect, CITB would now exist simply to collect and redistribute levy money, as a commissioner, and to accredit courses.

“Construction needs to modernise and CITB is no exception. We accept the challenges laid down by industry and government and we will deliver a future-fit training body by adapting and updating our business model,” she said. 

“By 2020 we will be the ‘levy in, skills out’ body construction employers asked for, doing less, better, while being fully transparent and accountable.”

Over the three years that followed, back-office functions were outsourced, training centres were put up for sale and administration of card schemes ended. 

The mission used to be to supply the construction industry of Great Britain with a trained workforce. Today the CITB says: “It’s our job to help the construction industry attract talent and to support skills development, to build a better Britain.”

Since the sale of Cskills Awards to NOCN (previously the National Open College Network) CITB no longer awards certificates or qualifications.

In December 2017 it gave notice to the owners of the CSCS that after 20 years it no longer wanted to manage its card scheme. In 2018 it sold the CPCS to NOCN, effectively privatising it and removing any claim to moral superiority that CPCS could previously claim over the privately-owned Lantra and NPORS plant operator card schemes.

With the plant operator card schemes effectively deregulated, plans were drawn up for a new organisation to represent the construction plant and machinery sector to sort out the whole business of operator training, licensing and certification once and for all. The Plant Sector Representative Organisation (PSRO) was set up in 2019 by a coalition of industry associations and federations to set standards and determine the competencies required for the various cards. This remains in the works.

The one card scheme that CITB still oversees is the health & safety test – more than 500,000 tests were run in 2019 at 450 test centres across the UK. The actual delivery is run by Pearson Professional Centres, not the CITB.

In February 2019, Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL) took over CITB’s human resources, finance, procurement, technology & change (corporate performance) and apprenticeship processing functions, as well as certain customer operations. SSCL is a joint venture between the UK Cabinet Office and French IT consultant Sopra Steria. It also provides back office administration for the Environment Agency and the Department for Work & Pensions.

The Bircham Newton facility in Norfolk – officially National Construction College East – is being taken over by West Suffolk College. This deal, agreed in February 2020, has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic but is expected to conclude in the coming months.

In November 2020 a deal was agreed for Walsall College to buy the National Construction College (NCC) in King’s Norton, Birmingham. Discussions are under way with potential bidders for CITB’s other two NCCs in Erith, Kent, and in Inchinnan, Renfrewshire. (Despite the sale processes, all the National Construction Colleges remain open for business and are taking bookings.)

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The Covid-19 pandemic impacted on the CITB as much as the rest of the industry as it stepped up to the plate to support the industry. 

After the first national lockdown was declared it announced a suspension of levy collection and a halving of 2021 payments – representing a substantial reduction of £242.1m in levy income over three years. This meant further cuts have had to be made. From 2021-22, CITB’s annual operating costs will be 20% less than in 2020-21. 

2020 was supposed to be the year of the triennial levy review. The consultation process over consensus started but was curtailed – questionnaires went out but follow-up interviews to find meaning behind the responses were cancelled. Instead, emergency powers were invoked and the secretary of state went ahead and renewed the levy order regardless.

With other priorities on their mind, only 420 participating employers actually responded to the questionnaire in 2020 (0.5% of those registered with CITB – the response is never overwhelming) compared to more than 1,200 during the previous consultation in 2017.

A separate survey conducted by payroll services provider Hudson Contract found that 87% of its respondents want to scrap direct funding of CITB.

Managing director Ian Anfield said: “It is strikingly clear from our survey that a vast majority of construction SMEs see no point in CITB and get no value from its levy and grant scheme. The fact that most companies deliver their own training activities regardless of CITB underlines the irrelevance of the quango in a modern economy.”

In retort, the CITB issued a reminder that Hudson Contract had only recently lost a court action in which it had tried to get out of paying £27.4m in levy payments that it was deemed to owe the CITB.

The reduction in income was central to the new 2021-25 strategic plan that the CITB published in September. There were gloomy assumptions about recovery of the UK economy. Many employers will lack the confidence to spend money on training, in the short term at least, it said. It predicted limited overall construction recruitment until the end of 2021, half normal levels in 2022-23 and still only 80% of normal levels in 2025.

Given this unpredictable landscape, CITB has decided to focus on a smaller number of priorities. Over the next couple of years the focus will be on re-joiners – experienced workers who have lost their jobs – and getting them back into the industry. Only thereafter will the emphasis return towards new entrants as construction starts to need fresh blood again. 

The architect of Vision 2020, chief executive Sarah Beale, leaves the CITB in September 2021 after 16 years with the organisation. Her successor is unlikely to get the job without a firm commitment to the current strategy.

The big challenge facing the next chief executive, apart from getting through the next consensus process, is the development of a new competence framework that is to be applied to 10 priority occupations by 2022 and populated for 46 remaining construction-related occupations by 2024. These new frameworks represent a shift of focus from standards to competence to support the longer-term goal of ‘modernising’ the training and qualifications system for construction.

‘Modernising training’, for the CITB, means not focusing so much on what you know and what you can do, but on how you behave.

As the strategy document says: “For many years industry has prioritised technical skills and knowledge and underestimated the importance of role behaviour in driving quality, safety, culture and productivity.”

Despite this initiative, the CITB is considered by many – and not just the people at Hudson Contract – as increasingly irrelevant to construction industry training. The CITB levy represents just 10% of the total £2.7bn annual spend in construction on training and development.

And training appears to have become increasingly irrelevant to the CITB.

As it seeks to maintain relevance and carve out a new role for itself with ever-diminishing budgets, the CITB’s focus today is on “helping companies to identify their training needs” by commissioning research and promoting construction as a career.

But it also wants to reach beyond training. “We will galvanise support for key industry-wide initiatives that help to improve the reality of working in construction, including improving work/life balance and making it more welcoming to groups that are currently under-represented,” the strategy document says, adding: “We believe that helping to change the reality of working in construction is the best long-term approach to making construction an industry that skilled workers want to join and stay in.”

Worthy stuff perhaps. But is this what the CITB should be for? Is this where the industry wants its levy to go? Could trade associations not do this just as effectively?

This article was first published in the Dec/Jan 2021 issue of The Construction Index magazine.  Sign up online.

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