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Last edited 16 Nov 2016

Tackling the construction skills shortage

Construction is a major sector of the UK economy. It generates almost £90 billion annually (6.7% of GDP) and employs in excess of 2.93 million people, the equivalent of about 10% of UK employment (BIS). So why do we not nurture, support and celebrate this sector of the economy?

The construction industry shed over 140,000 jobs in the 2008 recession and just scraped through the 2012 dip. However, there is a new challenge on the construction horizon. It is a challenge that seems to have an obvious solution, if only business and the government can invest in the right training and skills.

Many construction workers are retiring, and the rate of retirement looks set to increase as 22% of the workforce are over 50, and 15% are in their 60s. The industry is also losing out to competing sectors where work is more stable and pay is more competitive. With an ageing workforce and a poor pipeline of young people, the construction industry looks certain to face a skills crisis in the next decade.

So the problem is two-fold; both the professional and the more practical side of construction is suffering. The industry has reached a turning point. To date, about one fifth of all vacancies in the wider construction sector are persistent and hard to fill because employers cannot recruit staff with the right skills, qualifications or experience, and the demand is forecast to rise even further. With young people, from school leavers to graduates, reporting depression borne largely out of fear over the prospect of getting a job and earning a living, why are they not fighting to fill these places?

The poor image of construction has a detrimental impact on construction businesses’ ability to recruit and retain people with the right type of skills. CITB data shows that the overall appeal of the construction industry as a career option for young people is low, scoring 4.2 out of 10 among 14 to 19 year olds. It is perceived to be about 'being outdoors and getting dirty' and most suited to 'young people who do not get into college or university'.

Parents reinforce these perceptions, pushing bright children to pursue a career in medicine, law or finance. But what about engineering, project management, quantity surveying, town planning and office management? How to design and build adaptable places that will grow and flex with a changing community and climate, in already crowded spaces, needs bright ideas and clever thinking.

This is compounded by the fact that only 1% of employers has looked to take on an apprentice or inexperienced staff member for training to ease a skills shortfall. The government has invested over £1 billion into training and apprenticeship schemes; however the schemes alone do not guarantee jobs. A lower proportion of firms in construction provide training than in other sectors on average, relying on apprenticeship providers to meet a specific client or project target, only to put them back in the training pool once the project is complete. Herein lies a problem, apprentices are often paid a pittance and it is not until they are fully qualified that they earn a living wage. The industry needs to make a commitment to these young people, highlighting a clear pipeline of opportunity and earning potential.

Some clients are making bold statements. On Thames Tideway, contractors are being asked to ensure 1 in 50 places are filled by apprentices (from London and the wider Thames Water region) and 1 in 100 is to be an ex-offender, The London Legacy Development Company, CrossRail and other major clients have similarly high aspirations.

A clear commitment from government to invest in major construction projects can help businesses plan their work flow and identify skills gaps early enough to ensure suitable trained young people, and the long-term unemployed are available and ready for work when they are needed. Close collaboration between businesses and training colleges can ensure that students are being taught the correct skills to ensure up-coming shortages are addressed. Finally clients need to stop chasing short term ‘value for money’ which often sees the skills gaps plugged by an often better qualified international workforce, simply reinforcing the acute shortage in the UK.

As an industry, we need to work together to make an effort to appeal to both ends of the spectrum of construction employment. On one side, convincing highly-skilled professionals that have the privilege of choice to go into construction instead of the financial sector for the benefits of working on tangible projects that build a sense of legacy; on the other, convincing young unemployed people to commit to apprenticeship programs secure in the knowledge that a place will be allocated upon completion, that there is a clear pathway for personal and professional development and a future for them within the industry.


This article was created by --KLH Sustainability based on Mind the Gap: Tackling the Construction Skills Shortage a blog by Kristina Arsenievich & Kirsten Henson published in July 2014.

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The idea of a client not chasing value engineering when their capital is on the line is absurd