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SKILLS IN DEMAND

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LEGAL

When my six year old announced that he wanted to be a plumber, he was greeted with the typical middle-class reaction: 'Excellent! How useful to have a plumber in the family, ' writes Kim Franklin.

Not for nothing has the construction press continued to highlight the worsening skills shortages in the industry.

The Society of Construction Arbitrators alerted its members to an altogether different shortfall in the skills market at its recent annual conference. The number of technical construction arbitrators, particularly architect arbitrators, is in decline. The explanation for this can be given in one word - 'adjudication'. Let me explain.

In the past, a construction professional who wanted to be an arbitrator and decide disputes arising out of contracts that opt for arbitration instead of litigation was required to study the legal basics of contract, evidence and case management. As this was usually done while holding down a day job, it would typically take two years of hard slog to obtain the basic qualification and another two years of effort to get the necessary practical experience to qualify for chartered status.

After which they could apply to the appropriate panels, such as the RIBA, ICE or Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, and wait for the appointments to come rolling in. And a decade or so ago there was a steady stream of work and well-known, senior construction arbitrators were seldom idle.

Then came adjudication, the quick-fix 28-day solution to all your construction problems.

Everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon and Adjudicator Nominating Bodies (ANBs) sprang up everywhere, rushing to qualify adjudicators to promote their own particular brand of justice. In the beginning, little or no training was required. Exceptionally, the specialist construction solicitors, TECSA, ran a one-day course concluding with, of all things, an exam. (I was told, no doubt apocryphally, that a senior partner from a leading construction law firm failed it. ) With the increased use of adjudication, the spotlight has fallen on adjudicator training and most ANBs now have some form of entry criteria and review procedures.

But, and here is the rub, a construction professional contemplating their future as a dispute resolver can now choose between two years of slog to qualify as an arbitrator or a weekend course at a hotel somewhere off the M25 to practice as adjudicator. And if there was an iota of doubt rattling around, it would be promptly squashed by the realisation that the number of annual adjudicator appointments is about 10 times the number of arbitral appointments. So little wonder that no one wants to be an arbitrator any more.

And it will matter. Most successful adjudicators have built their practices on a lifetime's experience as construction arbitrators.

All that slog paid off for them.

But, as the demographic changes, senior practitioners will be replaced by the short-cut merchants who have little understanding of the law of contract or dispute-resolution generally.

As the standards of adjudication deteriorate, the industry will look for better-qualified arbitrators to handle their disputes. And much like the plumbers - they will be in short supply.

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