Chameleon School of Construction is a family-owned company based in Derbyshire, founded by Angelica and Jason Duncan seven years ago after they discovered a lack of construction training opportunities in the local area.
Jason is a member of the Worshipful Company of Plaisterers, and the first Chameleon centre in Swadlincote offered Diploma courses in plastering, but since then the range of construction courses has grown to include Level 1to 3 Diplomas in bricklaying, and wall and floor tiling too, as well as NVQ training. In addition to the Swadlincote centre, Chameleon now operates from sites in Burton-on-Trent, Barlborough, and Pinxton.
Chameleon won the Derbyshire Times Inclusion Award last year, and with funding available it welcomes learners of all ages, genders, and academic abilities. Chameleon works closely with local schools, and many learners join straight from school at 16, but since securing adult funding the number of older learners looking to retrain in a new trade has grown dramatically. The CSKills Diploma courses take up to a full academic year to complete, but unlike many training providers Chameleon can accommodate new starters throughout the year. Learners generally attend for two days per week, and Chameleon tries to be flexible on these where possible.
Gaining a CSCS card is vital for anyone wanting to pursue a career in the construction industry, Chameleon operates a CITB-approved testing facility at its Swadlincote centre. Recent changes to the CSCS scheme require applicants to not only pass a 50 question on screen test, but also to have a recognised health and safety qualification. Chameleon offers a recognised Level 1 Health & Safety in a Construction Environment qualification via a distance-learning workbook, and every year the test centre is used by hundreds of both self-employed workers looking to gain or renew their CSCS card, and by local businesses wanting to ensure their employees are fully qualified and compliant.
Chameleon also has funding to help the unemployed gain their green CSCS Labourers card, and has built an excellent relationship with local JobCentres that has seen many claimants complete a fully-funded four week course to gain the required qualifications for them to find employment in the construction industry.
Work experience is an important part of the learning process. To help learners on the Diploma courses gain valuable work experience Chameleon endeavours to build relationships with construction companies working on projects local to its centres. Major housebuilder Strata recently invited a group of Chameleon learners onto a site near Swadlincote.
“We were very grateful for the opportunity Strata gave our learners”, says operations director Jason. “It was an excellent opportunity not only for them to gain experience of what a live construction site is like, but also to make a good impression on a potential future employer.”
Jason is a member of the onsite construction advisory panel to the Department for Education that is working of the introduction of the new T-Level qualification, which provides him with a unique insight into the importance of work experience for construction trainees. “Employers in the construction industry need to increase engagement with work placement learners if the national trade skills shortage is to be effectively addressed”, he says. “The new T-Level will require learners to undertake far more work placement hours in order to complete their qualification, and this will only be possible if construction employers work far more closely with both training providers and learners in order to ensure the future demands of the industry are to be met.”
At the moment the relationship between Chameleon and housebuilding companies is on an ad hoc basis, but it hopes that the necessity for work placements in order to complete qualifications in the future will lead to a more formal link up between employers and training providers.
The reported drop in the number of apprenticeships since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy last summer shows that there is a long way to go for the industry to address the skills shortage issue. Chameleon strongly doubts that the apprenticeship levy in its current form benefits the small and medium-sized construction companies who are vital for industry growth. The system is designed to benefit the major players in the industry, and so as it stands they are the ones who need to take more responsibility for shaping a more positive environment for apprentices and trainees. Large housebuilding companies generally accept that there is a shortage in trade skills, but for Chameleon it can be a challenge to get the industry’s larger employers to forge a mutually-beneficial relationship with the training providers who can address it.
In that regard, Chameleon’s recent experience with Strata could provide the model for future relationships. The interaction between Chameleon, the learners, and the housebuilder was very positive. It not only gave the learners a far better idea of what employers are looking for and what is required from construction workers on site, but also acted as a shop window for learners with newly-acquired skills to show their potential to Strata. In a pleasing outcome, one young plastering learner approached the Strata site manager and asked if he could return for further work experience, and was offered a part-time job as a result.
It shows what can happen when employers and training providers are able to work in unison to provide opportunities for the next generation of construction workers to shine.