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Skilling construction in India

Skilling construction in India

The Skill India initiative is expected to take a while before some measurable outcomes would be evident. The issues are connected with skill building and span across sectors.

There has been a long overdue need to undertake measures to bridge the serious gaps which prevail between skills required and skills available across most of the economic sectors in India. An initial assessment of these gaps was made in a series of sector specific reports brought out by the National Skill Development Council (NSDC) some years ago. Although based on information not readily verifiable, the reports were an invaluable step in understanding the type and extent of skill gaps across many sectors like construction, manufacturing, etc. The ´Skill India´ initiative of the present government takes the ¨Skill Building¨ efforts further by providing suitable coordinating mechanisms at the level of the Central Government and allocating specific budgets for the purpose.

There are strong negative perceptions about construction work in India, making it very difficult to attract talent to this sector. Some of these are: poor reputation and over-representation of workers with weak links to the education and training system; unattractive work environment for the ´young and bright´; image of ¨dirty, difficult and dangerous¨ work; lack of preference to work as medium-skilled workers; lack of clear career paths and no tradition of lifelong learning. Therefore, bridging the skill gaps could easily be a monumental task. Nevertheless, it is important to develop some estimates of the extent of skill gaps. The estimates prepared by NSDC predict that the total incremental skill requirements by the year 2022 will be in the range of 4.7 crore.

Of these, nearly 80 per cent is expected to be with relatively lower levels of formal education, and another 13 per cent equivalent to ITI and other vocationally trained skills. Although the manpower with higher levels of education and skills (diploma, engineers, post graduates) account for only about seven per cent of the total skill requirements, in absolute terms, these are quite large and very critical to deal with the complex challenges of the sector. Among the semi and high skilled technician workforce, carpenters, masons, bar benders, plumbers, electricians, welders, painters, equipment operators, glazers, quality control testers, etc., will be required in large numbers.

These estimates are not without their limitations and inaccuracies. For one, they are based on assumed prevailing manpower strength and extrapolation of the same into future requirements, assuming certain growth rate over time. As it turns out, in the years since the estimates were first available, the sector has nowhere witnessed the growth as envisaged in these estimates. In fact, in real terms, the sector may well have contracted somewhat in recent years. Similarly, the assumption that the total skill employed in the sector in the base year of the estimates was 3.1 crore has never been proven. Therefore, there is an immediate need to revisit these estimates and develop fresh data, taking into account the developments of the last five years. Finally, the skill requirements of construction must have a strong relationship with construction processes and construction supply chains. Both are quite ill-defined, making skill mapping even more intricate.

Skill Requirements in Construction
To develop a relatively clear picture of skill requirements, it is imperative to study the nature of the construction processes and construction supply chains. Many of these activities are performed by different entities in the construction supply chains.

The skill requirements and availability vary across different activities in construction process- pre-design and planning phase, design phase, tendering and contracting phase, construction execution phase, maintenance or refurbishment phase, demolition or deconstruction phase. In addition, construction business has important staff functions such as human resources manage¡ment, procurement management, marketing management and financial management.

Long term development of the construction sector will modify the configuration of future skill needs. The broad skill groupings are:

  • Planning and management skills (P&M)
  • Sustainable construction process skills (SCP)
  • Adoption of new technology skills (ANT)

Planning And Management Skills (P&M)
Construction projects are becoming complex, and require more advanced planning and management skills among managers and workers carrying out tasks at site level. At ´site level´, organisation of work will be characterised by self-governing autonomous teams of workers. Division of work tasks will be team-based, instead of the traditional authoritative supervisor deciding this. Service-mindedness and profound understanding of processes and tasks of other trades in the project will be extremely vital. Workers will be expected to possess basic communication skills. The P&M skills can be grouped into three categories:

  • Pre-construction contingency planning (PCP)
  • Advanced business skills to handle flexible procurement systems (FPS)
  • Supply chain management (SCM)

The pre-construction planning phase is the ´execution planning´ phase involving numerous activities such as selecting sub¡contractors, refining schedules, determining manpower requirements, selecting and ordering materials and equipment, preparing site logistics, identifying prefabrication opportunities, developing a quality assurance plan, etc. There will be growth in the use of Design and Build (D&B), Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP) and Engineer Procure and Construct (EPC) Contracts.

These will require accurate completion date, efficient and technologically complex solutions with shorter timeframes and within tighter financial constraints. Due to increased subcontracting, main contractors will be reliant on other actors in the construction supply chain (e.g., suppliers and subcontractors). Increasing contingency of pre-construction planning makes time planning and managing the risk of delayed completion a key future skill requirement.

These transformations of construction processes will need advanced business competencies to organise adequate partnerships and to assign responsibilities within the consortia.

The skill sets for construction firms who will increasingly function as prime contractors will include ¨scanning skills¨, keeping up-to-date about legislation, implementation and document company policies to participate in tenders such as CSR, quality policies, environ¡mental policies, etc. The inherent project character of construction projects is a challenge to supply chain management. In the chain, most actors manage their own parts. Most problems are spread across the supply chain, solutions are needed to cover multiple stages of the supply chain. As subcontracting increases, the prime contractor acts as a coordinator who has to react flexibly to all the demands made w.r.t quality, cost and time. Prime contractors continuously need to revise their supply strategies and trading relations with subcontractors and suppliers. Some of the key future SCM skills required of building project managers will be: reduction of vari¡ability and uncertainty due to order changes, and management of critical resources. In design-bid-build construction, it is difficult to identify critical resources.

The issue is how to identify them, lay out a critical path network, and reduce workload of critical resources. Each new construction project involves new specifications, partners, subcontractors, suppliers and customers. For each new project, a new supply chain is configured and the issue is how to evaluate and then change the chain.

Human Resource Management (HRM)
Construction sector also needs some non technical and social skills including: Negotiation skills w.r.t. issues related to changes to scope, cost, quality, schedule objectives as well as contract terms and conditions. Communication skills are essential for project leadership, technical leadership and team leadership. Project manager requires excellent writing, oral and listening skills. ´Composure´ and ´team leadership´ are identified as the most predictive variables for excellent performance. Construction is highly labour-intensive, but characterised by regressive HRM with little emphasis on employee development to support innovation. To ensure future recruitment and attractiveness of working, professional HRM is needed. High level of self-employment through labour-only subcontracting challenges long-term HRM. Construction firms have increasing incentives to achieve flexibility by using labour-only subcontracting and self-employment. But this hinders long term build up of the firms´ human capital. Therefore, a balance is needed. Key skills will include knowledge of health and safety and managing a differentiated workforce with regard to specialisation and internationalisation.

Sustainable Construction Processes (SCP)
Sustainability will influence construction activities at all stages from design and planning to demolition and rehabilitation. In the pre-design phase, sustainability considerations focus on the nature of land and buildings as investments, commodities, places of work and places in the community. Design phase must consider energy, recycling of materials, waste management, and future proofing climate change adaptations issues for drawing sustainable specs. These skills mainly address trades such as architecture and civil engineering involved in the design phase, particularly in large firms involved in civil engineering.

In the tendering or contracting stage, documentation of sustainability performance will be a key competence with public procurement standards used as a strong incentive to introduce sustainability aspects. It will include contractors´ plan for conservation of resources in the design and construction works, minimisation of waste, reuse of construction materials and reduction of embodied energy for construction works. During the ´on-site production stage´, there will be need to ensure minimum environmental burdens in physical construction, including sustainable preparation of construction-site and preparatory activities, organised waste management, etc.

At the maintenance or refurbishment stage, some of the key skills will be communication with clients on sustainable refurbishment to make building owner aware of conflicting parameters to be balanced for sustainable refurbishment; installation of energy saving building automation systems; linking heating, ventilation, lighting, windows shutters, etc.; service functions subsequent to installation such as programming, adjustment of the equipment and advising the customer on maintenance; improved cooperation between trades involved in maintenance. The deconstruction or demolition stage, when building materials are dismantled, reused, recycled, recovered or disposed off, has a significant environmental and economic impact. Knowledge and skills are related to the removal of waste from the site, check for leakages, soil pollution, radon emission, etc. Know-how to ensure that materials are not contaminated, and knowledge of markets available for purchasing the demolition materials would be essential.

Adoption of New Technology (ANT)
Adoption of new technology and new practices are essential for development of the sector´s competitiveness and productivity. Use of ICT in the construction process is a key technological development, offering new ways of interaction and communication in trade, construction processes, and monitoring of materials. Industrialisation of construction processes through modularity, pre-fabrication, pre-assembly and lean construction, constitutes an influential trend.

Of course, the above is an outline of the nature of skills that will be required for sustainable future construction. Detailed skill profiles need to be developed throughout the construction supply chains and processes in order to formalise future job descriptions in construction, prepare training and development programmes, and eventually elevate the profile of construction sector work as a whole.

Bridging Skill Gaps
There are primarily three options available for skilling construction manpower and bridging the gaps highlighted earlier. These include higher education and training (HET), vocational education and training (VET) and continuing education and training (CET). Of these HET is particularly suitable for developing skills at higher levels such as engineers, graduates, post graduates, and diploma holders. VET will be by far the most crucial means of education and training of large mass of construction workforce at lower skilled, semi-skilled, multi-skilled, and highly skilled technician workforce. The CET approach is important for continuous skill and knowledge upgradation at all levels. Different delivery modes are possible for each of these types: full time, modular, part time, and distance or online modes.

Some models of vocational education and training (VET) include the following:

  • Dual system, in which students alternate between school attendance and apprenticeship (ex. Germany)
  • On-site learning system, where the students mainly acquire competencies through company training (ex. UK)
  • School-based training and practice (ex. Bulgaria)
  • Company-based training (ex. Italy)
  • The advantage of combining apprenticeships with school-based training is not only the balance between theoretical and practical skills, but also a closer relationship between the social partners and the training institutions. In India, barring very few anecdotal evidences, no clear data is available about the performance of the newly launched initiatives. Also the long term sustainability of these is yet to be tested. One of the emerging needs of the construction sector will be to evolve a suitable mechanism for integrating some version of higher education with vocational education, in order to define suitable career progression paths to those who opt for VET to improve the attractiveness of work in construction sector for young job aspirants. Some countries have experimented with the approach very successfully. For instance, one of the models tried in UK involves the following stages :
  • First Diploma- a full-time qualification with background knowledge of various jobs, with options for continuing education or entry into craft or technical jobs
  • Vocational certificate of education advanced level (AVCE)- general aspects of construction and the built environment
  • Foundation Degreeû mix of vocational and academic learning; starting point to move to a technical, supervisory and management job
  • Degrees- architecture, construction management or civil engineering; usually a three-year course or longer via full-time, part-time, or ´sandwich´ study; typically one or two years at college and then a year´s paid work experience with an employer In summary, the country has made some strides in addressing the massive problem of skilling in the construction sector. These efforts are at best in nascent stage and there is a very long, torturous road ahead in coping with the challenge. It is however clear that the sheer magnitude of the financial resources needed means that the task cannot be left entirely to either the central or state governments, but require whole-hearted participation of the construction sector as a whole. Riddled as it is with gigantic debt burdens and other challenges, it is open to conjecture as to how the construction sector plans to spearhead the monumental task, either in the near or long term.

This article has been authored by Dr Mangesh G Korgaonker, Director General, National Institute of Construction Management and Research.

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