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Skills test

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Architects may be perturbed by threats of a skills shortage among bricklayers, but Hanson has been playing a major role in industry initiatives to raise the level of knowledge

If we asked a panel of architects, materials manufacturers and the government for their opinion on the current skills shortage, there would be cries of acknowledgement combined with frustration, dissatisfaction and a clear grinding of teeth.Here is a problem that is manifesting itself into a bigger issue for brick manufacturers and the specification of brick as a construction material.

Successful brickwork will be judged on the quality of the laid brick. This is a simple strategy but a difficult one to deal with if the 'natural resource' of a skilled workforce is unable to deliver. An architect judged by the success of his last project is unlikely to feel sympathetic to the reasons behind the failure but instead will consider an alternative material or construction method next time.

For a brick manufacturer, there is no payback for the huge sums involved in creating the most superior clay products on the market today if the bricklayer is allowed to ruin the visual aesthetics and performance criteria with one swing of the trowel.

From Hanson Brick's position, the future of the clay industry must be protected from the hit-and-miss vagaries of poor workmanship and provide the designer with the essential confidence to continue specification of this traditional material.

Figures from the CITB will confirm that not only is there a numerical shortage of new recruits into the industry, but that, among those already employed, there is a lack of skills. Proactive approaches are essential: many have been in operation for some time.

For decades, Hanson has been encouraging youth with the excitement of craftsmanship and artisan skills within a competitive environment. Creative-brickwork competitions have been held regionally and nationally, working closely with the support of the Guild of Bricklayers, in addition to national and regional highprofile training events. This is not a new strategy and, regardless of the commitment and financial support that is injected on an ongoing basis, there is clear recognition for those who are keen and enthusiastic about their bricklaying skills and workmanship.

A national competition is under way, organised by the Guild of Bricklayers and supported by the Better Brickwork Alliance (BBA). The BBA is a recently formed organisation launched by the Brick Development Association under the chairmanship of Sir Idris Pearce, past president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and Master Elect of the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers. Members include brick manufacturers, brickwork contractors, mortar producers, training organisations, the CITB and the Guild of Bricklayers. The aim of the BBA is the promotion of quality in brickwork by whatever means, and the competition event is just one initiative that will benefit the whole construction industry.

The competition allows students to participate in a skills knockout, with the opportunity to achieve success at regional level and to go further by aiming for national recognition and for an international position amongst the best in the world.With the title goes image, satisfaction and reward.

Until this year Hanson Brick sponsored most of the regional competitions run by the Guild. By providing materials, hospitality, funding for travel and other expenses, it has helped to make this possible for the selected few. With contributions from other manufacturers, Hanson is now involved with three of the ten regional heats including the main selection event staged by Skillbuild. This will be held this summer in Ballymena, Ireland, when winners of the regional heats will be invited to participate. In these events only the highest standards will do. Building demanding and complex pieces entails working against rivals who are equally enthused and dedicated, and against the clock. Hours of scrutiny and deliberation by the judging panel ascertain dimensional accuracy in alignment, cutting and finish.

The Skillbuild organisation, supported by the CITB and DfEE, is a two-year rolling programme of competitive skills-training events culminating in international representation. Here, Hanson Brick digs deeply again and provides sponsorship funding for specific one-to-one training and the nurturing of one bricklayer who will require intensive training while maintaining a job and part-time education.

As well as these training commitments, the Brick Development Association has introduced the College Twinning Programme, which involves participation from all brick manufacturers. Hanson already has a historic relationship with many construction colleges in the provision of materials at discounted prices for practical training.

Other manufacturers and colleges not already in a similar relationship have been twinned in the BDA scheme, establishing a group of colleges for which a specific manufacturer will provide essential support. In addition, the deal includes visits to brickworks, presentation seminars on materials and their application, provision of literature and other helpful product information. The twinning system has allowed the company to focus on a smaller number of colleges on a non-competitive basis and the financial underwriting has been shared more evenly.

The government also recognises the dilemma facing the construction industry.

Bricklaying, like other building trades, has been introduced into the GNVQ curriculum, making it easier for young people to enter the industry with some knowledge. To do well in it, they are advised to go on to further education: if lucky enough, they may gain an apprenticeship with a contractor or developer. Doing well will provide essential job satisfaction, the prospects of running one's own company with a full order book, and the reward of excellent remuneration.

On-the-job training continues to play an important role. The CITB's On-Site Assessment and Training (OSAT) scheme, introduced in 1999, is designed to support this. The number of companies participating is increasing rapidly. The scheme is expected to become the main vehicle for both improving the standard of training and for providing formal recognition of existing skills in the construction workforce.

A package of activity supported by so many players is encouraging for the industry and the quality of the built environment.

Some may argue that it's too little too late, while others will appreciate that major players have been doing a great deal for a considerable time. Architects and designers should take heart from this positive activity and feel confident in the specification of natural clay brick as an aesthetically charming and versatile, high-performance and sustainable construction material.

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