Deskilling in the Construction Sector
“Deskilling” is a term that has been spoken about a lot recently, especially post-Brexit, as there have been concerns over different trades being “deskilled” in attempts to cut costs and move certain aspects of different construction activities over to those in lesser paid job roles.
Construction workers have already faced years of uncertainty; even before the referendum which led to Brexit, it was obvious there was a widening skills gap in the construction sector. Many different trade bodies have released training schemes, aimed at both welcoming in new workers and training those already in construction related job roles, but with rising costs always a concern, deskilling is one of the biggest threats the construction sector currently faces.
One such recent example is that of a JV between EDF & Balfour Beatty/NG Bailey that proposed the hire of “engineering construction operatives” at Hinkley Point C (HPC) to carry out tasks such as containment, as opposed to fully qualified electricians. The concern with this was the deskilling of the electrician’s role and the loss of such tasks, which Unite the union have said are the “bread and butter” of an electrician’s work.
As of June 2021, the proposed JV will not be going ahead, after electricians staged protests against this change.
What is “Deskilling?”
As can be seen in the example above, “deskilling” is where tasks that would typically be carried out by a fully qualified tradesperson are moved to those who may not be as qualified. In some cases, advances in technology also contribute to deskilling; for example, a good office management system may very well mean less of a need for human administrators. This in turn can lead to job losses and an upturn in redundancy.
Deskilling in any form typically cuts costs in terms of labour; referring back to the Balfour Beatty/EDF JV, craft level electricians on this job would be paid £18.90 an hour (higher than the national average) vs the £13.64 an hour paid to engineering construction operatives. Once a task can be safely moved to a lower paid worker or to a new technological process, the role of the skilled worker becomes less valuable, and as such no longer demands the same level of skilled salary.
Training and Reskilling
Going back again to the JV example mentioned previously, one of the reasons the proposals were able to get so far were down to a lack of qualified electricians in the local area. This meant that it was deemed feasible when the original project plans were drawn up that a split of 60% craft-level electricians and 40% lower-skilled workers (such as engineering construction operatives) would be an acceptable way to complete the works. This agreement was allowed as contractors stated they would pay the craft-level electricians more than the national average, but then wanted to bring in the engineering construction operatives without discussion, to bring the costs down.
Training Schemes and Progression
One way to offset the risk of deskilling is to highlight and emphasise the importance of training. Whilst there are certain construction activities that cannot be carried out without the correct qualifications in place, there are other roles that are open to interpretation; like containment tasks as above, whilst these are typically carried out by a qualified electrician, someone in a lower skilled role can also undertake this work. By ensuring enough fully qualified construction workers are present for construction activities country wide, the risk of this type of situation happening is reduced.
It is also important for workers to ensure they keep progressing in their job role. If they have passed the basic level of training, then progress to the next level where possible is another way to ensure future employment and helps them as individuals become more valuable to employers. One such example would be a construction worker who has passed their Streetworks NRSWA training for Operatives and may now wish to progress to Supervisor training.
Another important aspect of training to consider is “reskilling”. If there really is a need for a certain aspect of a job role to be deskilled, then it is important for those who previously undertook those tasks to ensure they reskill in either more areas of the same field, or a new related field where their current skills can be grown and expanded upon. Some workers choose to reskill in new job roles entirely; an electrician may choose to move into building inspection and quality control, for example.
Certain training schemes, such as the Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS), lend themselves well to reskilling. There are a number of courses for construction operatives in different categories, including heavy plant, lifting equipment and MEWPs, widening the skillset opportunities for those in the sector.
For example, a worker who operates a Crawler crane will need to sit and pass the CPCS A02 Crawler Crane testing and training course but may also request to take the A04 Tower Crane training course, so they have the skillset to work with both types of cranes should the need or opportunity arise.
Whilst deskilling for the sake of cost control is definitely a threat the construction sector faces, training schemes and reskilling opportunities can definitely work to offset this, as long as workers and employers unite together to ensure both those in skilled roles are valued, and that training opportunities are present to keep a skills shortage at bay!