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TOPIC

The recently established Training Organisation for Professionals in Construction is helping consultants tackle weaknesses in their training policies.

Most consultants are still failing to train staff, according to research by the Training Organisation for Professionals in Construction. Compared to firms in many other industries, they are still spending too little on training, planning even less and leaving employees largely to organise their own career development.

In construction this is nothing new. Historically there has always been a small band of larger, forward-thinking firms that invest in their staff, working alongside a much bigger number of small organisations that do not. Many of the smaller firms have only recently realised that they need to change if they are to compete effectively for staff and work.

This is why the Construction Industry Council launched TOPIC in April 1997, on the back of government-funded research which showed overwhelmingly that the industry was failing to train staff properly.

TOPIC's aims are clear: to advise and support companies that are struggling to train their professionals. It offers databases of available training courses and suppliers, and helps switch managers on to the benefits of staff development.

'The message from Egan is that if you don't get management sorted out then you are lost,' says TOPIC development manager Sheila Hoile. 'TOPIC is a point of contact to talk training issues through - to encourage companies to perhaps look more deeply at what is behind their training problem.'

Improving a company's training and development should be seen as a key way for companies to improve their businesses. TOPIC's goal is to help firms get better, more motivated staff and so achieve better productivity and profitability. Clearly TOPIC has a long way to go before any kind of success can be claimed.

Hoile accepts that TOPIC has to work harder to get its message across and is a firm believer that training initiatives will fail unless the issues are tackled at the highest level within companies.

She is also keen that firms embrace programmes like the government- backed Investors in People scheme which rewards companies for placing the welfare and development of staff alongside business performance priorities.

It is significant that TOPIC's recent questionnaire to construction consultants indicated that just 10% of firms had achieved IIP recognition with only a further 28% committed to achieving it in the future.

However, regardless of whether or not companies gain a certificate to prove they are committed to staff, Hoile would be pleased to see companies at least thinking about the cost of training and budgeting for it. The fact that her survey showed 57% of firms spending less than 1% of turnover on training staff each year would worry her less if it was planned. The majority she believes do no such thing.

This planning starts with appointing training managers, she insists. The TOPIC survey found a noticeable lack of them in consultancies, with 68% not having anyone responsible - a key indicator, she believes, of the problem.

'With Continuing Professional Development the sense is that it is down to the individual, and then only when there are direct benefits for the company's business.'

And what companies probably do not realise is that there is cash available within the nationwide network of Training Enterprise Councils to give key staff the skills to become training managers.

Spreading advice like this is one of TOPIC's goals. But the organisation also gets cash from government for specific projects such as its current Guidance for Graduates scheme.

A pounds200,000 grant from the Department for Education & Employment is helping to create a regional network of support centres for construction graduates. The idea is to offer a point of contact on their doorstep to get advice, take part in workshops and plan their training needs.

TOPIC found that 72% of firms considered membership of a professional institution to be the most important qualification for their engineers to achieve. As a result, TOPIC is helping these firms, supplementing the limited resources of the ICE's regional training officer network.

However, such a concentration on achieving institution membership could also point to a lack of focus towards the continuing professional development of more senior staff - and certainly there is anecdotal evidence to support this view.

With the ICE about to launch its new guide for members on CPD, tackling this problem will rapidly become a priority.

TOPIC's research revealed that employers found that the biggest barriers to training were finding time to release employees and affording the often high costs charged by private training firms.

There was also a preference for engineers gaining CPD through the less expensive courses and meetings organised by professional institutions. Cost was ranked second to content by firms as a criteria for choosing training courses.

But, Hoile points out, there is not necessarily any relationship between the amount firms pay for training and the quality of training their engineers receive. With no reliable ways of evaluating what they are spending their money on, the quality of training is largely pot luck.

The results of the TOPIC survey raise more questions than they answer. But its task is now clear - to work with TOPIC members to resolve an issue which threatens to undermine the career aspirations of employees and the business goals of their employers.

AO

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