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Why the answer to our skills challenge is a bigger toolbox

We had our kitchen done recently. We had the electrics done, the plumbing done, the carpentry and beautiful woodwork done. Before any of that, there was re-routing of essential services and plastering that needed to be done. The finishing touches were the painting, tiling and certifications. It was a lot of planning and a lot of work but we’re thrilled with the results. It’s now our favourite room in the flat.


All of this work was done by one man: Andy (with some help from his mate). Andy has NVQs in carpentry, plumbing and electrics, along with Gas Safe and NICEIC accreditations. He can build walls, lay floors and even install the latest underfloor heating tech. He’s modest about his many skills, seeing them as ways to enable him to do the projects he wants. Andy paid for his own training over a number of years – somewhere in the order of £10,000 – by juggling work with evening and weekend studies. Next, he’s booked in for an electric vehicle charging course. Andy’s what you might call a Renaissance man.


People like Andy are impressive but they’re not rare. They’re not new either. More than 500 years ago, Leonardo Da Vinci pioneered anatomy using not a scalpel but a pencil. Drawing on his interests in astronomy, botany, cartography, painting, and palaeontology, among other things, he epitomised the idea of the multi-skilled worker. Granted, he’s considered one of the most diversely talented people ever to walk the earth, but we don’t need to feel upstaged. It’s the principle he embodied that’s important.


It’s strange how this principle hasn’t percolated into the on-site trades. The very idea of a chippie who’s also a sparky is enough to send an entire snap cabin into pandemonium. There'd be mournful sucking of gums, and charges of being a “Jack of all trades master of none!” But Jack of all trades master of none is just a proverb. It’s one side of an age-old philosophical conundrum: the notion that it’s best to know a lot about a little, with the counter-notion being that it’s best to know a little about a lot, encapsulated by an opposing proverb, “One-trick pony.”


The problem with proverbs is that they force us to choose a single category. They help us understand the universal through reference to the specific but they also constrain us. To define is to confine. When we think in categories, we overestimate how different two things are when there happens to be a boundary between them, and when we focus on categorical boundaries, we don’t see big pictures.


In today’s construction industry, there are big challenges around skills. Government and BEIS are worried about people shortages. Contractors are paying the price of a high-churn, low-commitment workforce. Workers are terrified of deskilling – be that from off-site manufacturing, artificial intelligence or electrical support operatives. But are our present skills categories preventing us from seeing the big picture? Are we sure we need more skilled workers or is a better solution actually to give workers more skills?


A workforce of Gails and Garys who can weld you a girder and felt you a roof and power you a plant room would ease the demand for new people because existing people could do more tasks. It would also lead to better workmanship and relationships on-site, and turn workers’ fear of the future into avenues of progression. It begs the question, couldn't some CITB funding be re-routed to help prop-up workers while they add new skills, enabling them to juggle their commitments like Andy does?


If you’re interested in learning, you don’t start with a categorical mentality. In Finland, they have a unique approach. Students tackle a single project through the lens of each of their subjects, forging connections across disciplines. This project-based learning (as opposed to subject-based learning) makes Finnish education consistently the best in the world. Finland also happens to be 2021’s happiest place in the world to live, again, for the fourth year running (this can’t be a coincidence).


If a new generation of multi-skilled tradespeople were involved in more aspects of the job, then it would be possible to give them project-based targets. Objectives instead of hours. This could mean Gary working interdependently with five colleagues he knows very well instead of ten strangers in silos who change every week. Rather than merely measuring his time against timesheets, he’d be in charge of mini-projects from start to finish, and evaluated on outcomes. Providing he’s hitting his targets, he could choose to leave work early on Tuesdays to watch his son’s matches and take Fridays off to work on his side-hustle.


As for employers, getting projects built quicker, better and with fewer boots on-site is surely an appealing proposition. Giving responsibility for outcomes rather than attendance makes flexible work patterns possible, which in turn opens the door to a more diverse and inclusive pool of people, such as students and carers, who are keen to work on the tools but can't put all their eggs in one basket, to pinch another proverb.


Furthermore, objective-based working means that those who advocate for self-employment can legitimately do so, since workers would have the autonomy to choose their own hours and their own methods towards delivering on their objectives.


Could we solve the industry’s biggest skills challenges, for all stakeholders, by enabling more plumbers to learn carpentry? Is the Renaissance tradie the answer? Categories do make the world easier and more sensible to us, that’s for sure. But we must also see the big picture. Andy sees it: it’s about the projects he wants to build, not the skills he wants to build walls around.


Handy Andy's handiwork


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