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CSCS overhaul targets a card system fit for the future

The Construction Skills Certification Scheme is in the middle of simplifying its system with the aim that only construction workers will need to carry one in future.

It is 23 years since the Construction Skills Certification Scheme was established with the aim of ensuring that everyone who works on a construction site in the UK possesses the appropriate training and qualifications.

Over that time, the organisation has changed substantially. And now, under the leadership of its current chief executive Graham Wren, it is in the midst of another transformation.

His vision, endorsed by the CSCS board, is to renew the connection between certification cards and qualifications, something he says was lost in the early-to-mid-2000s in the wake of a particularly pugnacious speech by the then deputy prime minister John Prescott.

“He delivered a keynote speech at one of the big construction conferences, when it had been a particularly bad year in terms of safety, with quite a few deaths,” Mr Wren recalls. “In typical Prescott style he said, ‘If you don’t sort it out, we’ll sort it out’. What happened was the big contractors came out of that conference saying, ‘Right, we’re going to go 100 per cent carded’.”

At the time CSCS welcomed the move – after all, it would mean more card sales for the scheme – but Mr Wren says that, in hindsight, not enough thought was put into what that growth might mean.

“100 per cent carded did not mean 100 per cent qualified,” he says. “We found that growth in the use of the card was primarily in what we called the Construction Site Operative card and the Construction Related Occupation card. These were cards we issued without the requirement for a construction-related qualification; all you needed to do was pass a touchscreen health and safety test and be endorsed by your employer.”

“At the request of the industry, CSCS introduced a card for vending machine installers. There was a proliferation of cards for random occupations that sat outside construction”

Graham Wren, CSCS

What ‘100 per cent carded’ also meant was that CSCS was increasingly called upon to issue cards to meet the needs of every individual who had reason to visit a construction site – whether or not their role had anything to do with construction. 

“The classic one is the person who restocks the vending machine in the canteen,” Mr Wren says. “So, at the request of the industry, CSCS introduced a card for vending machine installers. For a time, there was a proliferation of cards for random occupations that sat outside construction.”

Cards losing purpose

The result was that CSCS cards became increasingly removed from the core objective of certifying construction-related qualifications.

By the time Mr Wren joined in 2012, the CSO card, which required no qualifications to obtain, accounted for half of the cards in circulation, while the CRO card, which again required no qualifications, accounted for another quarter.

“So, you can see that a large proportion of the cards were actually being issued without the requirement for a qualification, purely on the basis of an employer saying, ‘He’s a good lad and he knows what he’s doing’,” Mr Wren says.

“Right the way through the 2000s that was what was happening. So when I joined in 2012, my initial thought was that the scheme had lost sight of its principal objectives. Also, the industry didn’t seem to be placing any real value on obtaining the card, other than it was a hoop that had to be jumped through to get workers onto site.

“There was confusion about what the scheme was and its identity. Its original purpose was to certify that the individual had achieved a construction-related qualification. So, the card displays the qualification and confirms the card-holder’s identity via a photograph. That’s what it was meant to do, but it had become divorced from its original objective.”

Graham Wren chief executive CSCS

Graham Wren chief executive CSCS

Graham Wren joined CSCS in 2012

When Mr Wren joined after a long career at Balfour Beatty, the CSCS brand was well known, but he saw that the entire card system needed to be overhauled if it was to remain relevant. One of the first moves was to ditch the CSO card and replace it with the Labourers card that requires the applicant to obtain a Level 1 qualification.

“The qualification at the labourer level is more health and safety biased because that’s the most important thing when you’re coming on to site at that level – that you have at least a basic understanding of the dangers,” Mr Wren explains

The CSO card was discontinued and the new Labourer card introduced in the summer of 2014, which means that, because CSCS cards are valid for five years, all the old CSO cards will be out of circulation in summer next year. At that point, all the individuals who could previously get on site with a CSO card without a qualification will have to be qualified.

Out with the old

The next step was discontinuing the CRO card, which Mr Wren admits was “more of a challenge”. In total, there were around 350,000 CRO cards in circulation, split across more than 300 occupations. The CRO categories were complex, in some instances with just one card issued for a single occupation, often unrelated to construction.

“Our message now is: you only need a card if you’re going to be working on site doing a construction-related occupation” 

Graham Wren, CSCS

“We spent a lot of time analysing the CRO occupations which fell into six categories. These ranged from workers holding cards for qualifications that were not construction-related to those who held a recognised qualification and were holding the wrong card.

“The transition out of CRO was completed in conjunction with the standard setting bodies, predominantly the CITB, to ensure a qualification was in place for each construction-related role.”

The CRO card was discontinued in March last year, so as with the CSO, the countdown to its full removal has started. “It was March last year that we ceased issuing the CRO card, so again we’ve got a five-year cycle to wash them out of the system,” Mr Wren says. “Once they’re all out, the vast majority of cards we issue will have a qualification attached to them.”

End of a 100% era

A consequence of these reforms is the end of the 100 per cent-carded workforce requirement enforced by many contractors and clients.

CSCS still issues the Site Visitor card – another card that doesn’t require a qualification – but CSCS is finalising plans to announce its withdrawal.

“Our message now is: you only need a card if you’re going to be working on site doing a construction-related occupation,” Mr Wren says. “If you are not construction-related, you won’t be issued with a card.

“What site managers must do is ensure those non-construction-related people are properly inducted, escorted and supervised, which is their responsibility anyway. The whole principle of the scheme is that people working in construction-related occupations have an appropriate qualification for the job that they do.”

Mr Wren was keen to stress the importance of the Construction Leadership Council in supporting CSCS’s work in returning the card scheme back to its original objective of verifying qualifications.

“Since 2015, 35 card schemes operating in construction have committed to the CLC’s requirements and are now displaying the CSCS logo on their cards” 

Graham Wren, CSCS

The CLC was created in 2013 to work between industry and government to identify and deliver actions supporting UK construction in building greater efficiency, skills and growth.

Mr Wren says: “The CLC recognised that there are numerous card schemes within the construction industry and that when it comes to qualifications many of them operate with an inconsistent set of standards.”

To tackle this issue, at the beginning of 2015 the CLC announced (via its Industrial Strategy: Construction 2025) that industry, including trade associations, contractors, clients and government, should specify and promote card schemes carrying the CSCS logo with no equivalents accepted. This is known as the One Industry Logo action.

The CLC listed requirements necessary for a card scheme to qualify for the CSCS logo, which include: 

  • Agreeing appropriate qualifications for each occupation 
  • Setting a minimum standard for skilled occupations at NVQ Level 2 
  • Introducing smart tech by 2020.

That happened in January 2015 and the card schemes have until 2020 to meet those requirements.

Since 2015, CSCS has been working with other card schemes active in the industry to encourage the development of plans to meet the CLC’s requirements. CSCS has signed agreements with many other schemes enabling them to display the CSCS logo on their cards. These are known as Partner Card Schemes.

CSCS and the Partner Card Schemes are committed to ensuring construction site workers are appropriately qualified, and in doing so they are playing their part in improving standards and safety on UK construction sites.

New sense of direction

The CSCS logo displayed on any card will provide the industry with a renewed confidence that the card-holder has achieved the required standards of training and qualification for their occupation.

“The CLC requirements have had an incredibly positive impact on the industry,” Mr Wren says. “Since 2015, 35 card schemes operating in construction have committed to the CLC’s requirements and are now displaying the CSCS logo on their cards. This will eventually lead to the upskilling of the workforce with all construction workers obtaining nationally recognised construction-related qualifications.”

But it isn’t all plain sailing; there are many challenges that come with qualifying the workforce, most notably who pays for all this training. And as the requirement to obtain a qualification takes hold, the black market is finding new ways to fraudulently obtain cards. 

These represent important issues that CSCS cannot tackle alone, and Construction News will explore these and other challenges in later articles.

The top line, however, is that CSCS is back on track and by the end of the current decade CSCS cards will once again reflect genuine construction-related qualifications.

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