Tackling the skills shortage

The UK’s construction industry is diverse and all encompassing. Taking public and private into account, and allowing for new-build, refurbishment and maintenance, the industry contributes 7% of GDP, while the value of its output continues to rise.

The specialist areas that hoover up both skilled and unskilled workers cover everything from design, architecture, civil engineering and brick laying to plumbing, carpet fitting, carpentry and sales. All of these sub-sectors require a constant feed of new labour. The increase of temporary and short-term contracts in the UK means we have relied heavily on a diverse, migrant-heavy workforce in recent years – a workforce which may well not be so fluid and accessible further down the line.

The current market

Investment in construction projects is growing again and the good news is that, with the government promising one million new homes by 2020, the industry, which always reflects the general status of the economy, is looking fairly buoyant.

The bad news is that the skills shortage, which has been threatening to put a chokehold on the wider industry for some time, shows no sign of abating. Instead, if nothing is done to prevent it, it could get even worse.

A dwindling workforce

There are several reasons why we are facing this predicament, not least the age of a high percentage of workers in the construction sector, with almost a quarter of the workforce over 50 at the last count. A reported 15% are 60-plus, which means that retirement is on the horizon for many – and sooner rather than later.

This problem is exacerbated at the other end of the scale by the fall in the number of younger candidates who are willing to engage with any of the professions. From school leavers to graduates, there has been a general dip in those prepared to consider a career in the industry, and the number of apprenticeships has fallen again in the last 12 months.

In fact, in terms of apprentices and trainees, the construction industry compares unfavourably with many other industries such as healthcare, which is faring a lot better thanks to its effective campaigning and recruitment drives.

Raising awareness

We clearly need to do more to market our industry and that needs to be done by challenging perceptions and shouting about the wealth of opportunities.

The construction industry requires a makeover in order to look attractive to the next generation of workers. Whether you’re a floor fitter or a carpenter, we need to showcase the hard work and skill required to work in construction. We need to show young people the career opportunities available within the industry and work with companies to make apprenticeships accessible.

Focusing on apprenticeships

The government has invested more than £1 billion into training and apprenticeship schemes in a bid to help to develop a skilled workforce. These schemes cover building, civil engineering, construction management, electrical servicing, surveying, heating and plumbing, as well as specialist apprenticeships such as roofing, scaffolding, plastering, bathroom and kitchen fitting and other skilled areas.

These apprenticeships don’t guarantee jobs but they do show some commitment to addressing the ever-widening gulf and it is time now for those of us who operate within the industry to step up and invest.

Companies also need to invest in safeguarding the future of our industry by upskilling their current employees. For example, to ensure we have a pool of skilled drivers, we have given all our warehouse staff the opportunity to train to achieve their class two license, and for our existing drivers to upgrade their license. This is widening the skill set of our team whilst ensuring we have the right resources in place to support our business.

Joint responsibility

Because the industry is so big, it has to become a collective responsibility and one that we can’t afford to allow to rest on the government’s shoulders alone. We must work harder to attract the next generation to our industry and invest in adequate training to ensure that we have the best-qualified staff to carry the baton, moving on.

There’s a lot more that we all could do to reach out to trainees and apprentices. In the first instance, any junior or unskilled roles that we are offering should come with the potential for training and career development, just as a matter of course. We need to better incentivise our new starters and make sure that we are focused on developing skills.

Thinking long-term

The fact that output is on the up, despite all the fears that have surrounded Brexit and the uncertainty of recent years, is excellent but we can’t ignore the imbalance that not fully investing in the workforce has created.

It’s time to look forward with positivity and to take a degree of ownership of the situation. If demand is outstripping supply and we want to stay in business, then we have to own it. The UK can’t rely solely on skilled labour from the EU, we have to also invest in our own.

This may involve forging more links with local schools and colleges, as a boots-on-the-ground exercise to demonstrate that we mean to make those changes but we have to approach this as a long-term investment that will help us all to prosper in years to come.

As an industry, we need to invest in our current workforce, whilst attracting the future talent to the industry. We need to see a larger buy-in from companies at all levels; from main contractors to manufacturers. Only then will we see the changes required to meet ambitious governmental targets and bridge the skills shortage within our industry.