Mind the gap – how can the construction industry tackle its skills shortage?

According to a recent Construction Skills Network Report, 230,000 construction jobs are set to be created throughout the UK by 2020.  This translates to more than 44,000 new jobs potentially opening up every year for the next five years. It also means that workers will be needed in key areas, including non-construction professionals, technical, IT and other office-based staff, as well as wood trades and interior fit out, bricklayers, building envelope specialists, and senior executives and business process managers.

The main driver for this extensive increase in UK construction jobs is that the industry as a whole is under pressure to achieve the target of creating one million new homes by the year 2020.  The recent Housing and Planning Act 2016, which passed into law in May this year, has been developed with the aim of speeding up the planning process, making it more streamlined and efficient.  One of the Act’s key reforms was the introduction of ‘Permission in Principle’.  This reform promotes the idea that developers will be able to secure ‘automatic consent’ for certain sites, where the principle of development potential has already been established.  Together with this change, innovative new technologies such as iApply aim to further facilitate the planning and building control process.

Nevertheless, without skilled construction workers to design and build the homes – and with a skills shortage already evident – many stakeholders are wondering how the target will be met.

Why is there a skills shortage?

There are a number of key reasons why the UK is currently facing a skills shortage in the construction industry – and the situation will only get worse if supportive action is not taken. 22% of the workforce is over 50 and 15% are in their 60s, meaning over the next few years these skilled people will retire from the industry.  Even today the industry has a poor image, resulting in a low level of appeal as a career option.  This is reinforced by few parents encouraging their children to consider the sector as a first-choice profession, preferring instead to steer them towards careers in medicine, law and finance.  And even though there has been a gender shift over the last 20 years, which has seen more women entering the industry, they still only make up approximately 11% of the overall workforce.  These issues are magnified due to the industry not having made a commitment to create apprenticeships and training opportunities. Figures suggest that as few as 1% of employers are engaging apprentices or inexperienced staff member for training – a missed opportunity to help ease the skills shortfall.

Bridging the gap

The skills shortage has been a factor in driving up wages, which has had further impact on vital infrastructure work, including the efforts to build more homes. Despite huge government investment of over £1 billion into training and apprenticeship schemes, on average there is still a lower proportion of construction firms providing training than in other sectors.  The industry as a whole needs to make a commitment to apprentices, highlighting a clear pipeline of opportunity and earning potential.  This will be helped by working closely with training colleges, to ensure that students are being taught the skills to address the identified shortages.  Women in particular need to be encouraged to consider the sector as a viable career option, with its vast array of job opportunities available.

Whilst achieving value for money is important, it should not be confused with ‘doing things cheaply’ as such an economic outlook will be to the detriment of creating a skilled UK workforce.  Clients need to understand that driving the price down won’t always result in the best solution, as too often the skills gap is filled by a better qualified international workforce, rather than investing in and developing our own talent pool. Developing and training a workforce represents a high level of commitment, as it is a huge undertaking with financial risks.  To mitigate against this risk, it is important that the Government makes a clear commitment to invest in major construction projects, as this will enable businesses to plan their work flow and identify skills gaps early enough to ensure suitable trained people are in place.

Building the role of women in construction

A recent report published by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) suggests that one of the biggest barriers for women entering into the construction sector appears to be maternity and child care benefits.  The percentage of businesses that provide female workers with more than the statutory 18 weeks maternity leave is just 15%, compared to the national average of 27%.  In addition, although 44% of women work part time in the UK, there are only 5% of women in construction who do. Over the last 20 years, the sector has tried to address some of the issues that have historically deterred women from entering the construction industry, such as sexism and inappropriate behaviour. With women making up just 11% of the total workforce, however, there is evidently still a long way to go, both in terms of creating opportunities and equality.  To succeed, it will be important to emphasise the positive aspects of a career in construction, and the valuable contribution that women can make to the sector.

The way forward

There is much to recommend the construction industry, from the variety of roles available to the opportunities to influence the sustainable future of construction, the environment and the country as a whole.  The chance to travel can also be a huge selling point and the options around career progression should not be overlooked.  People need a clear picture of what is on offer, so that once they have taken the decision to enter the industry, the experience will be a positive one. Effective inductions and training together with career development and promotion opportunities will ultimately improve retention levels. Education is key to the message.

With so many factors shaping Britain’s ability to get building on the scale required, it is imperative that all areas – from planning and building control through to construction – play their part, including the increased use of innovative technologies such as iApply.


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