The CITB’s new chief executive gives his first interview to Construction News about his plans to modernise the often-criticised organisation and what he believes must be done to plug the skills gap.
- Holding up a mirror
- Triennial review
- Priorities for change
- New board
- Levy changes
- Skills shortage
- Role of the CITB
“I love change,” Adrian Belton says when asked what appealed to him about taking the role as the CITB’s chief executive in April.
At the head of an organisation in its 50th year, often criticised for its inefficiencies rather than praised for its role in helping to train the industry, the need for change is something he recognises and promotes.
“I wasn’t recruited just to polish the brass; I came here because I am serious about the change agenda”
“The CITB has been around for 50 years so it has strong heritage, but it has been off-pace for the past few years in many people’s eyes and is in need of reform.
“I wasn’t recruited just to polish the brass; I came here because I am serious about the change agenda.”
Mr Belton acknowledges criticisms of the CITB – and adds a few of his own. But he is unwavering in his determination that the 50-year-old, £270m-turnover, 1,500-employee organisation can be swiftly improved.
He is optimistic about recruiting and training more than 200,000 people to the industry over the next five years to plug the skills gap, despite leaders at the UK’s construction firms becoming increasingly concerned.
Is this a man who hasn’t grasped the gravity of the skills shortage in construction in his six months in charge, or someone who can draw on a background from outside the industry to help lead a transformation of the training board?
“What I’m trying to do is encourage a culture of challenging the status quo,” he says.
Holding up a mirror
Mr Belton rarely feels the need to defend his employers, an advantage perhaps of having come from outside the industry.
He first had a career in banking before moving into local government. Prior to joining the CITB he was chief executive of the Food and Environment Research Agency for six years.
“The good thing is that the organisation itself has recognised that change is long overdue”
He points to some CEOs coming from different sectors, including those on trade bodies, and suggests such people – himself included – can “hold a bit of a mirror up to the industry and reflect on some of the things that have gone on”.
A large number of the people he meets have largely only ever worked in the construction sector, he says, whereas in other industries there has been “greater cross-fertilisation” between different sectors.
Mr Belton was appointed chief executive in January 2014 and took up the post in April.
He joined at an interesting time for the CITB: in the midst of a delayed triennial review by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
All non-departmental public bodies face triennial reviews, which determine whether there is a ‘continuing need’ for the organisation, then whether its governance arrangements are up to scratch.
The review kicked off in July 2013 and was due to report in March 2014. But, six months past the deadline, the CITB is still awaiting the outcome.
“I don’t have to push hard to make change happen; it’s a question of where do you start when there are so many things to change here”
Mr Belton says the delays have been caused by issues of personnel, from those leading the review to government changes, after Nick Boles took over Matt Hancock’s post as skills minister in David Cameron’s July reshuffle.
He had been excited about joining the CITB after the scheduled completion of the review to make the most of having “a fresh start”. He admits it has taken “longer than we would have liked”, but is not unduly concerned by the outcome.
“Keep the CITB rather than kill the CITB is what [the industry has] said, so I don’t think there will be a surprise in that announcement – at least I hope not.”
Priorities for change
Following the conclusion of the triennial review, Mr Belton wants to focus on maintaining and improving the CITB’s relationship with the government, one of many priorities on a lengthy to-do list.
“The good thing is that the organisation itself has recognised that change is long overdue. I don’t have to push hard to make change happen; it’s a question of where do you start when there are so many things to change here.”
He will lead the reform of the CITB’s leadership while uniting it as one organisation, and wants to “unleash” its existing talent.
“Over the last few years, the organisation has lost some of its confidence; it has retreated a bit and we’ve not been punching our weight”
“One of the criticisms I’ve heard since joining the CITB is that it’s seen in some people’s eyes as too many different organisations and sometimes they conflict with each other; I think we need to put that right.
“Over the last few years, the organisation has lost some of its confidence; it has retreated a bit and we’ve not been punching our weight.”
The efficiency of the organisation is another subject that must be addressed. “When I look around here I see systems and processes that remind me of banking back in the 1980s. There’s a lot of modernisation needed in our processes.”
He says the CITB is conducting its own internal review of its operations and services and will take ‘make/buy/sell’ decisions to streamline all of its services, with some set to be axed.
He uses the national construction college, made up of eight UK campuses and training centres, as an example and questions whether the boom in technology and advanced construction and innovation means it should be more of an institute of advanced construction.
“While the role of the CITB might be to invest in that, we don’t necessarily have to own it. It could be a public-private model,” he suggests.
The board of the CITB has more than 20 industry representatives and Mr Belton claims it is out of kilter with modern corporate governance.
“I hear feedback that it’s complex to apply. So we need to make it easier to apply and be more responsive to industry”
A new board will be created comprising eight trustees, including CITB chairman James Wates. New appointments will be approved by the secretary of state and will provide “more of a business focus”.
Mr Belton says he “wouldn’t be surprised if a few [existing board members] choose to apply”, but is keen to stress that the board will start afresh and be held accountable to a council comprising representatives from the industry.
The new board will overhaul the levy system, which Mr Belton acknowledges is too complicated.
“I hear feedback from people that it’s complex to apply and they’re frustrated by the process and it can be a turn-off. So we need to make it easier to apply and be more responsive to industry.”
In July, the CITB announced changes that will make paying the levy easier for businesses, but there will also be changes to make it easier to claim back grants.
“Typically, larger organisations that are resourced to handle the grant application process are in a better place to do that than a small business, which, at the best of times, will find it difficult.”
He defends the levy system and the support for it from the industry. There is a consensus review of the levy every three years, from which Mr Belton expects to win support for the levy for another three years – and subsequently after that.
Ask anyone in the industry about skills and you’ll hear impassioned responses, but few are optimistic about the outlook for recruiting enough staff and training them to the required level.
In the latest Construction News Barometer for Q3 2014, 97 per cent of senior management at top 100 contractors said they were concerned about a lack of skills and staff over the next 12 months.
Mr Belton admits there’s a “perfect storm” creating “a massive skills challenge of a magnitude that we have never seen before”, but insists he is “not lying awake about it”.
“I think there’s a leading role for us to play, but I don’t think it’s our job to fill the skills gap per se”
With around 400,000 workers approaching retirement age in the next decade and rapid growth in construction demand in the past 18 months, skills shortages are already being keenly felt.
The Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 general election have also affected contractors’ training of new staff, Mr Belton says.
But, he adds, the 200,000 people the annual Construction Skills Network survey says the industry will need by 2018/19 “is less than 10 per cent of the current employed workforce in construction, so in that sense over five years it’s not a huge number”.
Role of the CITB
Asked should the larger contractors be doing more to fill the skills gap, Mr Belton says this may be the obvious answer, but that “there has been too much polarisation of the debate of big boys being accused of not doing enough and smaller ones not getting a slice of the cake”.
“I think there’s a leading role for us to play, but I don’t think it’s our job to fill the skills gap per se. We can provide the evidence base and the forecasting and the data; all of those tools to help.”
Mr Belton says it will take two to three years to turn the CITB around. So what would a refreshed and strengthened organisation look like?
Don’t expect it to grow, but the organisation won’t shrink either. Rather, there will be a focus on making the most of its resources and overhauling existing processes, not unlike the contractors it works with daily.
Its chief executive is disarmingly frank when he says that “in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a need for an industry training board at all”.
Not that there is any chance of the organisation disappearing any time soon. “For as long as the industry is as complex and fragmented and diverse as it is”, there will always be a case for a body such as the CITB to co-ordinate skills, he says.
The whole industry has an opinion on the CITB and Mr Belton says he wants feedback. “We can only get better if people tell us what they don’t like and what needs changing, so I don’t want people to hold back.”
Readers can contact the CITB’s chief executive at Adrian.Belton@citb.co.uk with their views