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Shortfall of skilled workers likely

Britain is facing a huge skills shortage that could undermine the success of the Olympics. The country urgently needs thousands more electricians, plumbers and bricklayers if the games are to be ready on time. Even if it finds them, there are not enough qualified chefs, security staff or cleaners either.

Research by the sector skills councils has revealed the Olympics needs around 13,000 construction workers and 1,500 electricians and plumbers a year between now and 2012. Other major projects, such as terminal five at Heathrow airport, the redevelopment of King's Cross and Crossrail, are already stretching the construction industry to capacity. If employers cannot hire enough new recruits, they may have to take staff off existing contracts to work on the Olympics, causing big delays.

According to Mike Bialyj, director of field and regional strategy at Construction Skills, the sector skills council for the building industry, the immediate need is for ground workers, bricklayers, carpenters, joiners and painters and decorators. There are also insufficient architects, engineers and construction managers.

But the skills gap does not stop at the building industry. Thousands of extra professional cleaners, security staff and facilities managers will be needed. There are severe shortages in the hospitality sector, too. Brian Wisdom, chief executive of People 1st, the sector skills council for hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism trades, says high staff turnover means that by 2012, the sector will have lost more than 4 million people.

The problem is particularly acute in the catering trade. Demand for qualified chefs is up 6%, but numbers have dropped by 10%. Of 257,000 chefs, 30,000 have no qualifications and 51,000 possess only basic hygiene qualifications.

Similarly, many plumbers and electricians are not properly trained, and will not be able to work on any Olympic sites without adequate qualifications. "The problem is trying to get the so-called cowboys fully qualified," says Stephan John, operations manager at Summit Skills, which represents building services engineers, plumbers and electricians. "The sector is looking at training up to 1,500 a year."

Customer service skills are also a major problem. A survey by People 1st found that 64% of staff in the hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism industries lack communication skills, while half do not possess customer handling skills. "At the moment, Britain is 17th out of 35 in the developed world in terms of the welcome given to international visitors," says Wisdom.

According to Ian Ashman, principal at Hackney Community College, the biggest skills need in his area is in hospitality. "Historically, we have not had a lot of hotels and restaurants in the area," he says. "There are no colleges in the five Olympic boroughs that specialise in hospitality training."

In the construction trade, training traditionally involves a mixture of technical certificates and national vocational qualifications. New recruits need some on-site experience to gain the full NVQ. But the numbers of apprenticeships are shrinking. With over 50,000 applications for 10,000 places, the traditional apprenticeship route cannot meet growing demand.

Further education colleges in Newham and Hackney are working with sector skills councils to provide local residents with literacy, numeracy and communication skills, as well as skills in specific trades needed for the Olympics. Hackney Community College, for instance, has teamed up with Westminster Kingsway, the best known hospitality and catering college, to offer NVQs in these trades.

There are also a number of initiatives, such as the Train to Gain project, which aim to encourage employers to train their own staff. And bursaries are being introduced to encourage people from non-traditional backgrounds to study relevant degrees. Summit Skills and the Graduate Forum are supporting 200 undergraduates to get more people from ethnic minorities into jobs on Olympic sites. Construction Skills and employers are jointly funding scholarships for female and ethnic minority students to study construction-related degrees. Currently in its third year, the scheme has proved very successful, with applications up 50% on last year.

Central and local government are also waking up to the need to get more people trained for the Olympics - and soon. The London employment and skills taskforce, run by the London Development Agency, will be producing an action plan for the Olympic skills needs later this year. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and the LDA have just promised £11m of grants in the three years to 2010 for Olympics-related training. "The projects," says Livingstone, "will train the new sports coaches, cooks and builders who are needed to make London 2012 successful."

From: Olympic shortfall. Where will the nation find the thousands of skilled workers needed to put on the 2012 games? Anna Bawden, The Guardian, 1 5 07

More at: Skills shortage

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See also: Locals likely to lose out on jobs

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