Caught in the NVQ Poverty Trap

The human cost of high-cost training, qualification and competence verification.

Last night, just after normal office hours, I took one of the most difficult phone calls of my professional career. Given that I have previously received calls from the bereaved families of men killed in the line of demolition duty and from those that have just seen their life’s work crumble into insolvency, that is really saying something.

I won’t use the real name of the caller, even though he was happy for me to do so. In light of what he said to me, I personally fear that naming him would further jeopardise a position that already sees him on the brink of both financial and mental breaking point.

The man in question – let’s call him John – is 48 years old and has been working in the demolition industry for 29 years. He has worked for reputable and well-respected companies such as McGee and 777 Demolition, rising through the ranks to become a qualified Demolition Supervisor. He is married with five children and has a mortgage.

He sat the Demolition Supervisor course some three years ago, finishing second in his class. But he now has until March to stump up £1,750 to take his NVQ Level 3; a largely meaningless exercise that merely produces a piece of paper that says a man can do the very thing he’s been doing his entire working life.

And that is where the vicious circle that has led John to the brink begins.

For a number of years, there has been an increasing use of agency labour as demolition companies seek to relieve themselves of the various burdens of employment and just pick up staff when they need them, and put them down when they don’t. John is just one of those many workers rendered expendable by this trend. His work currently is, at best, sporadic. And NVQs require the individual to be monitored carrying out specific tasks. So, even if he could afford to pay just under £2,000 to prove what all his peers and former employers could verify, he doesn’t currently have sufficient continual work to allow an adjudicator to actually monitor him.

There’s a lot to unpack here; so let’s take things one at a time.

The very fact that I felt it necessary to retain John’s anonymity for fear of reprisals and recriminations should itself set alarm bells ringing. No working man, nor someone helping him, should be afraid to voice his concerns.

The UK demolition industry speaks regularly about a skills shortage, and yet here is a man that might be forced to leave not just the industry but the country itself because the training and qualification system has been skewed against him. Not only will the industry lose a qualified and valuable demolition worker, it is in danger of losing all the knowledge and experience he has accumulated and that he can impart to those around him; all because the demolition training regime has become a way to generate vast revenues rather than a way to ensure that men and women are safe on site.

The UK demolition industry has recently leapt aboard the mental health awareness bandwagon. But through its own actions and inactions, it has driven a working man (and I certainly do not believe John’s case is unique) into a depressive state that is now being exacerbated by rapidly worsening financial worries and escalating debts.

The majority of UK demolition companies pay a levy to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). If John was employed by one of those companies, that company would pay for the NVQ, recouping a large proportion of the cost of his NVQ in the form of a grant. However, as a private individual, John does not have that privilege. Instead, he will have to find the £1,750 out of his own pocket, and he will not get any of it back. The bitter irony is that many demolition and construction companies do not even bother to reclaim the grant funding owed to them.
And then, of course, there is the rise and rise of the employment agencies that effectively earn their living through the labour of others; taking a cut of their daily wages while workers’ rights are slowly but inexorably eroded on their watch.

When I spoke to him on the phone, John sounded downtrodden, sad and fearful. He was also angry. Angry that the industry to which he has devoted his life has seemingly cast him aside through no fault of his own; and angry at the National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) and National Demolition Training Group (NDTG) for their role in his current predicament.

He is right to be angry. I would be angry too if I couldn’t afford to feed my children; if I was falling behind on my mortgage payments despite being ready, able and eager to work; and if three decades of accumulated knowledge and experience had been dismissed by the sweep of a bureaucrat’s pen.

But John is only partly right in the aim of his anger. In this instance, the NFDC’s greatest failing is the fact that it has allowed this tick-box training regime and the resulting “NVQ Poverty” to be foist upon the UK demolition industry by external forces with little or no understanding of the demolition process. To its eternal shame, the greatest failing of the NDTG is that it has chosen to profit from these circumstances and then to sit on those vast proceeds (estimated to be in excess of £1.0 million) while people like John and his family potentially go hungry. The founders of the National Demolition Training Group would likely turn in their graves at the way in which their vision of a way to protect and upskill demolition workers is now being used to actively discriminate against them.

However, the real blame for this situation lies with organisations like Build UK that insists upon pieces of paper to prove that which is patently obvious; and the Construction Industry Training Board, a barely fit-for-purpose organisation whose own existence is regularly called into question and which many believe to be directly responsible for the current and ongoing skills shortage.

Blame, regardless of the direction in which it is aimed, does not help John. It doesn’t get him back to work. It doesn’t get him a piece of paper that proves what we already know about his capabilities. It doesn’t put food on his family’s table, it doesn’t help pay his mortgage, and it doesn’t halt his spiralling debts. But currently, blame is pretty much the only weapon at his disposal as he fights alone. Sadly, the term “no man left behind” apparently does not apply in demolition circles.

I will leave you with three thoughts.

Firstly, I do not need a piece of paper to tell me or anyone else that I am a journalist. I do, therefore I am. There is no organisation that can take that away from me or that requires me to pay to prove that I can do the very thing that has kept a roof over my family’s head for the past 30+ years. Why should John’s situation any different?

Secondly, yes, I could start a crowdfunding programme to help raise the £1,750 that John requires; and I would be more than happy to do so if there is sufficient support out there. But, the fact is, neither I nor we should have to. Surely the very purpose of industry training is to help people up, not to force them out? Maybe the NDTG might like to consider offering interest-free loans to those caught in the NVQ Poverty trap; paid back via direct debit at an affordable £10 per week and with the card being suspended in the event of non-payment.

Finally, I am writing this on the day that the London & Southern Counties Region of the NFDC is gathering at a swanky London hotel for its annual luncheon; an event at which most (if not all) tables are sponsored. The sponsorship of a single table would be more than enough to pay for John’s NVQ Level 3.

And if that doesn’t make you question the industry’s priorities, then nothing will.