Addressing the shortages of construction skills that threaten Broadband Roll-out

Problems with quality, not just quantity threaten to derail full fibre roll out as they did cable TV roll out 25 years ago.

Over the past couple of years broadband roll-out projects (BT, Virgin, City Fibre etc.) have become increasingly delayed because of shortages of relevant construction skills. The current excuse for these is Brexit but the current problems began when BT restarted investment after receiving BDUK funding. They are similar to the quality problems which derailed the roll-out of Cable TV in the 1990s and lost the shareholders’ investments as the industry “consolidated” and NTL and Telewest went into Chapter 11. Sub-contractors, many from Eastern Europe, did not have the competence they claim. They damaged other utilities, destroyed gardens, killed trees, failed to correctly reinstate roads and pavements and angered local residents and potential customers. The consequent hostility led to delays in getting approvals for construction and the cable companies ran out of funds before achieving critical mass. But for local loop unbundling the rump of the industry would probably have been bought by Sky for £1 instead of salvaged for the US Bondholders by Virgin Media and sold on to Liberty Global.

The UK skills base imploded after Local Loop Unbundling.

Then local loop unbundling destroyed the business case for the BT 21CN programme. This led to the decimation of BT’s in-house engineering teams, to savage cuts in spend on outside contractors and to a decade long standstill in external infrastructure investment. By the time the BDUK funds began to flow the skills had emigrated to build networks around the world leaving behind neither a pool of new generation telecoms construction skills nor a talent pipeline.

And the collapse of Carillion compounded the problems

Then, at the point demand for network construction skills began to recover, the collapse of Carrillion  delivered a double whammy. BT and its network construction suppliers (like Fujitsu) had contracted much of the civil engineering work to Carrillion – which had, in turn, hoovered up much of the UK construction industry and dominated its supply chains. The latter imploded in chaos at that same that those with dual source contracts with its competitors, like Telent  wanted to use them to plug the gaps left by Carillion. The BT response included plans to recruit and train 3,000 new “engineers” to meet the needs of Openreach but, in the period before setting up the ten new training centres announced three months later, work on BDUK contracts inevitably slowed.  The delays with the Gigaclear full-fibre roll-out across Devon and Somerset also began with the collapse of Carillion. A take-over of the next contractor delayed matters further and Gigaclear had to be refinanced to cover further cash flow delays while expanding its in-house workforce and training programmes.  About this time Virgin Business Media began planning its apprenticeship programmes and City Fibre had to refinance its expansion plans on less generous terms than those expected by shareholders at the time of its most recent rights issue .  Meanwhile those serving multiple dwelling units, like Hyperoptic and Community Fibre were also setting up their own training operations. Those planning to rely on existing civil engineering sub-contract supply chains face increasing problems as competition for suitable trainees, let alone experienced contractors, increases.

There is a view that Brexit will make matters worse but the use of supposedly skilled Eastern Europeans has been part of the problem. The skills to build robust full fibre, wireless or hybrid networks are in short supply across the EU as the roll out of 4-5G infrastructures accelerate. Those genuinely competent can earn more in, for example, Germany. Those not competent bring their employers into disrepute – compounding problems with agreeing timely access, wayleave and streetworks and causing expensive remedial work. Their streetworks IDs can be based on certifications from centres where no-one who paid the fee failed the course. We have demonstrable free movement of the incompetent because the blacklisting of those demonstrably incompetent is no longer legal and there are no common processes for registering employer-validated log books of past performance.

Current plans to rebuild the UK skills base do not yet address the inherited quality problems, let alone the changes in skills for building new converged fibre (backbone) and wireless (fixed and mobile) networks. And little is being done to create pipelines for the skills to roll-out and exploit  the smart infrastructures of the future. In consequence when, last July, I was asked to speak to the UK Fibre Connectivity Forum on Digital Infrastructure Skills we had a glut of would-be infrastructure investors because shortages of the construction skills to turn planning into cash flow had led to an implosion of credible investment opportunities.  Today a growing number of  local authorities are dreaming of becoming smart cities or counties but unless they are also planning to help contractors recruit and train those to build the infrastructure, (as well as working to provide easy access to highways, wayleaves and anchor tenants) their Council leaders are likely to have retired before construction begins.

My presentation on skills standards, paraphrased here  followed one on the Local Full Fibre Roll Out programme. The DDCMS presenter confirmed that the Skills to deliver the programme was now their main concern. They felt the Barrier Busters now had credible plans for addressing the other issues. In October the Broadband Stakeholders Group organised a round table with the DDCMS Skills Barrier Buster and the Treasury Digital Infrastructure Team and a cross section of  network operators and construction companies. This led to a consensus that IET (not present though a number of participants were members), be asked to look at the standards and quality control problems, particularly the practicality of creating registers of competence.  A couple of weeks later I was being chased by DDCMS over progress and was able to say that I planned to use the session on barriers to broadband roll out at the INCA 2018 Conference  to summarise progress and invite delegates to help. By the time of the INCA event I was able to announce a DPA round table on 26th November, hosted by the Digital Skills Solutions team of Newham College. Newham College not only turns inner-City NEETs into digital apprentices for the major employers in City of London (working with City and Guilds, CompTIA, Microsoft, Samsung et al) it has also been chosen as the GLA Construction Academy. It was thus an ideal host for bridging the gap at the hart of the Digital Infrastructure Skills problem.

Creating coalitions of the willing to meet the needs of their supply chains as well as themselves

That round table on 26th November was unusual in many ways – including both venue (the London Fashion and Textile Museum happens to be administered by Newham College and the creative industries are massive consumers of bandwidth at the heart of the digital world) and format. It brought together planning and personnel directors from network operators and construction companies alongside the chief executives of training provider and Local Government broadband champions and Economic Planning Directors. The interplay revealed the gaps in understanding that have bedevilled thinking to date  For example – a driving license is a now mandatory pre-condition for more trainee posts than a digital qualification. Think about it. Most of Uber generation of urban teenagers does not bother to learn how to drive because they cannot afford the insurance, have nowhere to park and perceive no need. But construction workers and service engineers  need to drive a van to get themselves and their tools to the customer site and most of the “paper work” can be handled over mobile phone – no need for a lap top and “digital skills”.

They participants identified a series of potential action plans (see below) capable of delivering scalable solutions within months, not years.

Even more important, several of those present had agreed action plans before they left.

Within a fortnight the IET had hosted a meeting with DSS, City and Guilds and the Chief Executive of the Highways Electrical Association to look at how to crack the quality control problem with existing streetworks registers and also host co-operation on talent acquisition and modular training delivery programmes. They plan to present possible solutions (which builds on existing inter-operable log-book standards) to employers on 21st January with the aim of piloting implementation within the quarter. Invitations are being sent using the list assembled for the embryonic Digital Policy Alliance Digital Infrastructure Skills Group. Click here for an invitation to ask to register as a prospective member and/or ask for background information. I suggest you also ask for me to be informed because I will be serving as an advisor until I retire (again!) at Easter.

Summary of the current situation as identified on 26th November:

1. Shortages of the basic civil and electrical skills to competently and safely lay cables alongside/under roads and pavements and reinstate surface threaten to inflict delays on full-fibre roll-out programmes akin to those which derailed the roll out of cable TV. There are similar shortages and quality problems with regard to installing cabling in multiple dwelling units,

2. Most of the skills in immediate shortage are not “digital”. More-over they can be acquired inside 2- 3 months, using short modules interspersed with on-the-job experience by physically fit trainees who have (or are able to acquire) a driving license. “Pop – up“ training facilities to deliver the modules necessary can supposedly be created at a month’s notice, given suitable premises and paying customers. Most network construction is planned 12 – 18 months in advance.

3. The shortages arise primarily because commercial confidentiality regarding the roll-out plans of the network operators means that construction contractors cannot pre-plan recruitment and training and training providers cannot pre-plan the necessary modular delivery capacity.

4. The problems with talent attraction arise largely because careers advice, whether for school-leavers or armed forces veterans is geared almost entirely towards acquiring class-room based qualifications. “Building the physical/digital infrastructure of the future” does not feature as a career path. Potential recruits are not made aware of the opportunities on offer to “earn while they learn in the open air”. Current funding mechanisms which require 20% of working hours spend in off-the-job learning do not help. Nor does the inability to charge recruitment and selection costs against the levy.

5. There are issues with the provision of standards, training modules and practice facilities with regard to some modern network construction techniques. There are also issues to do with the assembly of modules and work experience into apprenticeships to enable training costs to reclaimed against the levy. This is now paid by most network operators and construction companies and almost none have yet been able to reclaim. These problems overlap with those faced by employers in other industries.

Summary of the Actions Needed:

1 Create registers of demonstrated technical competence, based on existing qualifications (updated as necessary) to provide the evidence missing from the Streetworks Qualifications Register . These might build on the Highways Electrical Association  and other professional/trade association, log books such as City and Guilds Digital Me (which shares the Open Badge Standard with players like IBM and Microsoft)) and/or programmes like iDEA (to draw in NEETs and others).

2 Organise talent attraction, acquisition and development programmes to meet shared needs, both short and long term, using existing processes and standards. National and local campaigns and competitions offering work experience opportunities to pupils and students might be organised with JISC and the Grids for Learning to convey messages and materials to not only schools and colleges but those commonly left out of such exercises, from youth groups and those in care as well as to under-employed adult communities.

3 Share information on forward needs with current and potential training providers and plan modular delivery when and where needed. The aim here would be to bring Local Authorities and FE College serving communities where broadband roll outs are planned alongside network builders, contractors and commercial training providers to remove risk by organising joined up local recruitment and training to meet known needs.

4 Identify those willing to work together on the longer term career development and skills delivery plans to plan, build, maintain and exploit the Smart (including secure, resilient, inter-operable fix and mobile 4/5G) infrastructures of the future.

Context for the possible action plans – both problem and opportunity – summarising some of the points made in discussion on November 26th:

1 How do we fit skills in short supply, which can be mastered inside with days of weeks by suitable trainees who can be productive from day one, into current skills frameworks?

A wide range of skills are needed and there are many career paths but the skills in immediate shortage are those at the bottom. These can be used to get trainees revenue earning from the very start, before either side commits to a longer term training programme or apprenticeship. They include basic streetworks (e.g. digging trenches, laying cables and reinstating road surfaces) or safely installing cabling in buildings (e.g. cutting through and reinstating fire resistant barriers – not leaving the building vulnerable both inside and outside like the Grenfell Tower). In many cases trainees can be “productive” from day one – shadowing and learning from a skilled operative on tasks which require a second person for safety purposes only, e.g. to watch for traffic).

Most of the subsequent technician skills can be acquired in short modules (e.g. to use complex equipment or plan operations) interspersed with supervised practice. Few require significant periods of off-the-job training – as opposed to the on-site or evening use of distance learning materials, simulations and assessments to acquire and demonstrate understanding of background knowledge.

Unfortunately most current public programmes are unattractive because they mandate periods of off-the-job training (20% is mandatory on apprenticeships) which are not relevant to most of the skills in current shortage or modern industrial and commercial training practice. Why should apprenticeship levy payers be pre-cluded from spending their levy on more cost effective ways of developing basic skills among those who may later proceed up the skills ladder?

2 How could/should we address known problems of quality control with the certification of supposed skills, including those claimed by immigrants, whether from EU or elsewhere?

Problems with unskilled staff, often with limited English, whose competence does not match that indicated by their Streetworks ID cards, exacerbates conflict with Local Authority Highways Departments and property owners and tenants and complicates the implementation of Streetworks Guidance or compliance with building regulations. There may, or may not, be a need to update the qualifications/certifications which these record but there is a clear need to record the competence and/or conduct shown in the work place, using employment log books and registers that can be checked and validated by future employers. There are a number of industry registers for electrical staff which could be used as the basis for shared registers which also cover streetworks and  intra-building skills. A growing number of certification bodies offer similar services using global standards for inter-operability (e.g. City and Guilds, Digital Me ).

Action: identify those interested in working together to produce shared/inter-operable employment records/log books using the “Open Badge” standard or similar pending reform of the Streetworks and/or other statutory registration programmes.

3 How could/should we work together, with who, to attract suitable trainees.

Current mainstream careers advice and activities are almost entirely geared towards routing youngsters to University and/or semi-academic FE qualifications with digital literacy (commonly using Microsoft and Google products and services on laptops) for the socially excluded (whether excluded for mental, physical, legal or cultural reasons).

Almost no attention is paid to the “physically fit but non-academic” and/or those who wish to work with their bodies as much as their minds (unless they wish to follow sporting careers). Even less is paid to those who prefer working outside – even though it can pay considerably more for those who do not reach consultancy, managerial or professional level in their chosen careers. Traditional prejudices are reinforced by the league table motivations of schools and teachers.

A pre-requisite for many infrastructure construction posts is a driving license for a van and (often) equipment trailer. Fewer urban teenagers in the “uber generation” learn how to drive Either they do not see the need, or they cannot afford the insurance, (more of a problem than the driving lessons or cost of an old, but roadworthy, car). There are few, if any, public or employer funded training programmes, other than for would-be bus and lorry drivers. There is a common view that such skills will be made redundant by driver-less vehicles but “digital skills” (alias use of current office systems) as opposed to “coding for all” (using raspberry pi  and microbit to develop abstract and applied logic and engineering skills), are already becoming redundant.

We pay lip service is paid towards social inclusion while failing to address the practical problems with attracting and/or supporting those from problem families, coming out of care, young offenders institution, prison or the armed forces. DWP insists that the timing and other gaps between loss of benefits (including by other members of a family where no-one else is in work) and earnings be treated on a case by case basis. In practice this presents almost insurmountable problems. Meanwhile recruitment costs, work experience and selection costs (let alone pastoral care costs) cannot be offset against the apprenticeship levy. Employer provided/supported accommodation is not only not reimbursable but is additionally taxed as a benefit in kind. By contrast most Universities now have programmes to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds doing full time degrees.

The first need is to produce careers messages, materials and events that will be attractive to the target audiences and will still be used by teachers and careers advisors. The key headline message for generation Uber might be: “Earn good money while you learn how to build, maintain and exploit the digital infrastructure of the future and widen your career choices” – with a clear sub-text that a physically fit recruit (any age from 20 – 60), willing to work in the open air, with no qualifications other than a driving license and the ability to use a mobile phone can be earning £20 – 25,000 (plus bonus) inside three months, with all necessary training (perhaps including to acquire the driving license!) paid for by the employer. Employers need to also show that their work placements are not charity but extended “interviews” for places on career paths that lead (including via subsequent training programmes, including apprenticeships, degree-linked or not) to the management of complex network installation programmes as well as a kaleidoscope of other opportunities building, maintaining and exploiting the smart utility infrastructures of the future.

But careers materials have to be used. We also need to identify channels and organise campaigns to promote those materials and events to those who will benefit most and/or bring most to the participating employers. These include e.g. physically fit NEETs of all ages, those trapped indoors with jobs they do not enjoy (or in prison), armed forces veterans and others used to organisational challenges or who enjoy the out-of-doors team-building exercise more than the day job. These might include working with high status groups like the City Livery Companies to exploit links with groups like Barnados, Founders4Schools, NSPCC, Placer, Veterans Associations, YMCA etc. DDCMS should also be asked to close the loop with MoJ plans to improve prison training and release programmes..

Action: Identify those employers and training providers interested in working with the Grids for Learning, National Charities, Local authorities and others to organise and publicise work experience opportunities, recruitment materials and events to attract suitable recruits from target audiences in relevant travel to work areas.

4 How could/should we set about overcoming the problems of commercial confidentiality and competition policy which get in the way of predicting demand (numbers and location) with sufficient accuracy to reduce the risk of organising supply.

There is much confusion over the scale and nature of the skills in current and prospective demand. BT is seeking thousands of contractors as well as a new generation of in-house skills. Others are scaling up from dozens to hundreds of new engineers per month or quarter. Some of the demand is because of problems with previous contractors. Some is genuinely new.

The techniques used for most publicly funded skills forecasts use definitions which are of little, if any, practical value to those planning course content, location or capacity. There appears to be no reliable data on how many skilled individuals are currently needed, where, or by who – let alone those who will be needed in the future to deliver the plans being worked on confidentially. This need not be so. Network builders commonly know their plans, expectations and aspirations over the next two to three years and most of the necessary training programmes can be organised at three months notice by the private sector. I will not comment on the problems to do with public sector planning/funding cycles. I am running late in producing a separate paper on these.

For reasons of commercial confidentiality the forward roll-out plans are rarely conveyed to construction contractors, training providers or recruitment agencies in time to enable the latter to also plan ahead. There is similarly little linkage between those planning 5G and smart products, technologies, buildings and/or cities and those who should be planning now to provide the necessary skills modules. [see also my blog on the IET plans in this space].

The aim should be to enable processes to bypass commercial confidentiality and enable local authorities, trade associations and others to collate demand based on collating the forward manpower plans and budgets of those intending to service their locations. Where this is not practical, analyses of current and planned recruitment advertising, like those produced by Burning Glass for Comptia and/or local authorities in the UK have been consistently better at identifying trends in demand but are of limited value in looking ahead.

This is, however, a poor second best to enabling network planners, local authorities, product developers, human resources directors (various titles), training providers and recruitment agencies to share confidential information and facilitate investment in rapid-return pop-up training facilities which have the potential to grow into facilities to meet long term evolving needs – as tangible demand emerges from the fog of forecasts.

The second, overlapping but different, need is to assemble a group to similarly work with technology and equipment suppliers, would-be smart local authorities, professional bodies and skills providers to plan ahead for the skills needed to build, maintain and exploit the inter-operable, critical infra-structure utilities for a smart (5G etc.) world. This should link to the IET work to produce guidance on standards, inter-operability, planning, procurement and skills issues for a 5G/Smart world. [see link above]

• Identify leadership team and invite participants (and others to be identified) to form a subgroup to agree what forward short-medium term planning information they are willing to share, with whom and to identify who else they would like to invite.
• Identify leadership team and invite participants for a longer-term planning exercise

5. Addressing the problems of reviewing and implementing current/proposed apprenticeship frameworks, including delivery and support, within current frameworks

There is much confusion with regard to what can and cannot be done using existing and planned apprenticeship and other skills frameworks and these are known to be under review, with political pressure for further change under way.

The problems are generic, apply to all industries and date from decisions by DfE officials to by pass the Sector Skills Councils. The solutions are also generic and will undoubtedly form part of the recommendations from the Prime Minister’s review into the Funding of Further and High Education. The means change will be delayed, perhaps indefinitely, while some of the UK’s most powerful interest groups fight to preserve their century old funding structures and way of life. Hence the reason so many in industry thought it easier to import talent than to sort out the UK education and training system.

Given the likely timescale for such fundamental change, it is more productive to identify what can be achieved by expanding delivery using already approved standards and suppliers, creating partnerships to increase throughput and serve additional locations as necessary. In parallel we should be to look at how these can be used to attract recruits for pre-apprenticeship work experience programmes and/or to look at new standards where necessary. This will also facilitate incremental change as students and parents are enabled to take better informed decisions rather than being herded towards debt funded full time degrees and the economic serfdom that follows.

Action: identify those interested in working on which apprenticeship standards, including those willing to work with BT on the Level 2 Trailblazer group which they are chairing.

Other longer term actions should then include:

• Publicising and replicating good practice in the provision of world-class local training access, when and where needed, including in co-operation with local authorities, Colleges, Universities, LEPs and others planning provision for the jobs of the future.

• Working with others across industry and political boundaries to secure action at whatever level necessary to improve current skills and apprenticeship frameworks so that they are fit for purpose and economically/socially sustainable.

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