I congratulate Johann Lamont on securing this debate, and I agree with many of her comments, particularly on training and safety issues. Scottish construction has always been a tremendously important sector of our industry, with major companies that have lasted for generations. At the moment, 130,000 people work for 43,000 firms, so there is a large network that requires support.
Although construction hardly ever rates a mention, and the industries that feed the sector are rarely considered, between them they provide many jobs in Scotland. From 1990 to 1996, the gross domestic product of Scottish construction rose by 10 per cent; however, because of technology, the numbers directly employed in the sector have fallen by 10 per cent. Imports from the rest of the UK total £1 billion and our exports total £550 million, which presents a huge opportunity for Scottish industry. However, it will need support and encouragement from the Executive to invest.
If we are to boost the number of sustainable jobs in construction, we will need to engage in essential work on the infrastructure to give the Scottish economy the proper basis for growth. I am pleased that, in the north-east of Scotland, it was announced today that Transco will build a pipeline which will provide 400 jobs, most of which will be local. We need more and more of those projects.
We must encourage road improvements and the construction of new strategic routes. Members will have heard me talking about the Aberdeen by-pass before now. However, we must also consider new railway links and the reconstruction of lines that have fallen into disrepair. Furthermore, if we are to continue to expand, we must improve harbour facilities. Such infrastructure work will provide employment, some of which will be very long term.
Reducing unemployment will release public funds, and various members have mentioned the need for the public and private sectors to be involved in partnerships. If we can create employment through the construction industry, we might be able to release funds to assist the public sector in participating more fully in such projects. As a result, I urge the Executive to assist people to get into major projects such as the Transco pipeline.
Today, craft working and working in building are not seen as sexy, and are not encouraged enough in schools or by society in general. However, the industry becomes more technical day by day and, as has already been mentioned, a huge skills gap is developing. The further education colleges that Robert Brown talked about should be encouraged to participate in filling that gap. In their drive to put bottoms on seats, to gain the funding that they need, they have failed to grasp the opportunity.
Some of the blame for that skills gap must fall on the Executive, unless the minister can give us some good news in his summing-up speech. For example, there is only one wood machinist course in Glasgow, and only one in Edinburgh. That is just not enough to support the industry and the opportunity that exists. Such courses are expensive to set up, and the funding comes, in the main, from the local enterprise company, but experience shows that the LECs tend to support IT rather than some of the basic skills that we need in building.
It is important that we also address the issue of housing, which has been mentioned. If we are to move on and support the industry and those who work in it, there must be full training and we must ensure the development of safety aspects in the industry. Scotland needs a modern infrastructure and housing fit for the new century.