In the Philippines, training a new generation of construction workers

Skilled workers build a house provided to a family who lost their homes in Typhoon Haiyan. Photo by: PWRDF / CC BY-NC

MANILA — In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan left a painful mark in Philippine history. It affected millions of people, killed thousands, and displaced many families. The typhoon damaged or destroyed over 1 million houses. Almost six years since the devastation, thousands remain without permanent homes.

The problem is multifaceted, from land issues to inefficiencies in the government’s implementation. Of the 205,000 houses the government promised to build for families displaced by the typhoon, only around 60% have been completed to date, with some found to be substandard housing. Even fewer houses have been turned over to affected families.

But Paulette Liu, president and COO of the Primary Structures Educational Foundation, Inc. School of Knowledge for Industrial Labor, Leadership, and Service, discovered another challenge when she visited the city of Bogo in Cebu province — families had rebuilt their homes with salvaged and donated construction materials, but with poor workmanship.

Many of the houses would not withstand another typhoon, she told the jury at the first Innovation Awards for housing at the 7th Asia-Pacific Housing Forum in Bangkok, earlier this month, where her foundation’s skills training program won in the category of partnerships and policies that promote affordable and resilient housing solutions.

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“The roofing was not securely attached to its wooden trusses, the footing is not rooted to the ground. The exposed trusses … would allow the wind to seep through the house,” she said.

People in Bogo, a coastal town, knew of agriculture and fishery but had limited knowledge about constructing a home, particularly one that’s resilient enough to withstand the next disaster.

But hiring a professional home builder was costly, especially for a family that couldn’t even afford their own construction materials.

So Liu thought, why not equip these families with the skills necessary to help them rebuild homes that are safe, but without the extra labor costs? The solution has underlying benefits: apart from gaining new skills, it could be a new source of income and help them find employment.

Building talent

The idea didn’t come from nowhere. For the past four years, the foundation — which is the corporate social responsibility arm of the Primary Group of Builders, a construction and property developer based in Cebu — has been working with the Philippine government and the construction industry in Cebu to introduce a program to train multiskilled construction professionals, called builder assistants.

The program aims to build a bundle of skills for senior high school students in construction, such as carpentry, masonry, waterproofing, and tile setting.

The program was born out of a grant from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development to help pilot the government’s Technical-Vocational-Livelihood track for senior high school students.

The TVL track is aimed at equipping students with skills for employment in the event they do not pursue a college degree. Under the pilot, senior high school students attend regular school most days of the week, then reserve one day for TVL classes. Apart from construction, PSEFI SKILLS also offers training to students in hotel and restaurant management, and food processing services. The foundation plans to expand its training courses to the maritime and health industry in the future.

But under the Builder Assistant job profile, the foundation aims to teach students multiple skills in the construction business to increase their value and employability, but also to “glamorize” the profession, Liu told Devex the night of the award ceremony.

Students who finish senior high school and receive the minimum course requirements from the Philippine Technical Education and Skills Development Authority — a government agency offering vocational and technical education programs — can undergo assessment and evaluation under the Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Assessment, Certification, and Accreditation System. The partnership developed this industry certification to ensure graduates have the skills and competencies that the construction industry needs. It acts like a badge of qualification in the industry, and could help improve people’s employability and income prospects, she said.

“People look down on the technical-vocational track, most especially when it focuses on construction,” Liu said. “But if you're a builder assistant, your employment is continuous, because you know carpentry, masonry, and all the other different [skills] needed in the construction industry.”

The foundation works to job match graduates with prospective employers in the sector, helping the partnership ensure students end up with jobs after graduation.

A vision to scale

While the majority of the PSEFI SKILLS students are sponsored by the corporation, some are now funded through the Philippine Department of Education’s Joint Delivery Voucher Program. The program provides financial assistance to public senior high school students interested in pursuing a program under the TVL track offered by institutions similar to PSEFI SKILLS.

Lessons from the pilot also inspired the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, which has since adopted in-company training for trainers. The training identifies designated company trainers that will ensure students on internships or job immersion are able to acquire the skills they need for their future careers. The aim is to prevent those students from being given menial tasks such as making coffee or photocopying documents, which often are not relevant to their career plans, Liu said.

“But with the pilot, we … trained the companies and [taught] them to make a training plan to monitor the progress of the students.”

Liu hopes the program will help elevate the profile of construction work in the country, and address the talent shortage and skills mismatch that have been a problem for the sector.

The job opportunities in the construction industry are huge. The country has a shortage of between 800,000 to 1 million skilled workers in the fields of construction, architecture, and engineering, according to the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment. Many continue to seek work overseas for better pay.

Liu also hopes to expand the program’s reach to families seeking a safe and decent home; construction workers who have little to no formal training in safe building practices and therefore no opportunities for career progression; and companies and NGOs working on social housing projects.

One of the reasons for the delay in housing is the lack of skilled labor and financing, said Liu. To overcome these problems, she has recommended that Habitat for Humanity equip its beneficiaries with the skills to build their own homes.

“They will not have to wait … and they will have additional income,” she said.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

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