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Liver pool's little brothers get celebrity treatment

INTERBUILD

Craig Phillips shot to fame on Big Brother, but it is construction that has kept him in the public eye. As well as presenting a range of DIY shows, Craig has also opened the biggest independent construction skills training centre in the north-west.

Joanna Booth reports

REMEMBER 2000? Back when New Labour was still new and the Millennium Dome was still being hailed as a success. It was also the first year an experimental TV show imported from Holland blasted on to our screens. Before The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! came the original reality show, Big Brother.

Fending off competition from an ex-nun, a yoga fanatic and a badly behaved city boy, downto-earth Scouse builder Craig Phillips won the day. What followed was the by now predictable three months of gracing every tabloid in the country and doing the round of chat shows.

But whereas most reality TV contestants sink beneath the waters of obscurity as quickly as they rose from them, Mr Phillips has forged a steady career presenting and producing shows for the BBC, ITV and the Discovery Channel. And he credits his day job, working in construction, as the reason for his longevity.

'Obviously Big Brother was my launch pad, ' he says. 'But I've done more than 600 shows since then, and 99 per cent of them have been through my construction skills. Without those skills I wouldn't have had this success.' Mr Phillips is a TV natural, his face animated as he explains what he has been up to since he left the confinement of the Big Brother house. It becomes clear that nine weeks of being cooped up is not an ideal environment for someone with so much energy.

His production company makes shows for the British Forces Broadcasting Channel. These have featured Mr Phillips kayaking in icy Scottish lochs and swimming to shore, driving tanks and surviving a Navy simulator exercise in which a ship is hit by a torpedo.

It was TV that prompted Mr Phillips to start his latest construction-related venture ? a building skills training centre for the young people of Merseyside.

'I was making a 10-part series about converting a large house in Liverpool, ' he says. 'It really surprised me the problems I had finding decent workmen. I'd run a building company in Shropshire for 10 years and never had any trouble. It was so difficult to find tradesmen and many were unreliable, late and had no pride in their workmanship. They weren't the standard of people I wanted on a show with my name on it.' Af ter ask ing around Mr Phillips realised th is was a common problem. 'After the apprenticeship schemes ended, trades began to die down. The CITB has said there will be a skills shortage of 8,000 in the north-west in the run-up to 2008, when Liverpool is European Capital of Culture.' But what prompted him actually to do something?

'It sounds a bit corny, but I felt responsible. The industry has been so good to me over the years. I asked the Learning and Skills Council, realistically, can I do something to help, can I set this centre up?' Elaine Bowker, executive director of the Greater Merseyside LSC, says Mr Phillips' idea stood out from the crowd.

'Lots of people knock on our doors with ideas and we have to be clear about what will make a difference. We can spend a long time growing construction provision, but we need support from employers. Craig's industry contacts were the reason we were so excited by this project.' With a £1 million grant from the LSC covering the running costs, Mr Phillips and his business partners and long time friends Mike and Eileen Hindley invested £500,000 to refurbish a 6,700 sq m building in a Liverpool industrial estate.

The LSC entertained slight concerns that a novice was undertaking such a large project, so it asked nearby Knowsley Community College (KCC) to lend some support.

'Craig has a vast knowledge of construction, but not how to plug into public accountability, ' says Sir George Sweeney, head of the college.

'To receive public monies you have to abide by certain rules and procedures, which aren't necessarily self-evident. We're helping to get the red tape in all the right places.' Construction skills trainees from KCC were also able to get some on-site exper ience to count towards their NVQ qualifications by helping with the building works to the centre.

After two years of planning, the first intake of students started in September 2005. Since then 152 teenagers have learnt bricklaying, carpentry and plastering.

Mr Phillips is a firm believer in discipline. 'We're very strict here, it's like a military operation. We're not being arrogant, we're conditioning them for site where if you're late, you're sacked. I speak to every student and say: 'Here are the rules, you have to choose to obey them because there are no second chances. We have 340 people on the wait ing list ? why should I give you another chance?'.' This tactic is welcomed by the businesses that have begun to take on trainees from Phillips' centre. Paul Flanagan is managing director of Flanagan Group, one of the largest local firms in the north west.

'I signed up st raight away when I spoke to Craig, ' he says. 'We've got a couple of joiners and they've been excellent. It's not just a job, they've been given a whole new outlook. A different type of peer pressure from the one they had in schools has taught them social skills, determination and respect.' Trainees need to spend around 18 months on work placements to achieve their NVQs, and this, rather than dealing with rowdy teens, is the biggest challenge for Mr Phillips.

'Ou r k ids can only work if businesses employ them, ' he says. 'I've made a vow ? very publicly in lots of speeches ? that I will knock on the door of every building company in the northwest and try to get them down here and ask for their support.' According to Mr Phillips, the hardest nuts to crack are major national contractors.

Ms Bowker agrees.

'Sole traders can't afford to take on apprentices.

The Paradise project has only five apprentices on a £1 billion scheme ? it's meant to be one per £1 million. There are queues of kids wanting to train but you try getting them into employment. Craig's got an in with the industry ? if he can't do it, no-one can.' This sort of pressu re does not appear to faze Mr Phillips one bit. In fact, he is already planning for the future. As well as widening the provision to cater for adults already in the indust ry, he is also planning a second cent re in Shropshire, scheduled to open in the next year.

For more information see www. craigsbuildingskills. com