Time to address the skills shortage

Julia Evans, Chief Executive at BSRIA examines the current construction skills shortage and urges action to help promote the industry as an attractive career path.

As the influence of the recession begins to fade and the construction industry sees a return to growth, all the things that beset us, such as having too many staff, are now reversing and the hunt for talent is on.

Recent figures from the CITB report that 200,000 more workers will be needed in the construction industry by 2020. The Royal Academy of Engineering reported in 2012, during a period of recession, the need for the UK to increase the number of science, technology and maths (STEM) graduates by 100,000 each year just to maintain the status quo. So where are all these people going to come from?

Total construction employment is expected to hit 2.74 million by 2019 which is slightly less than the number employed pre-recession in 2008 when 2.86 million were employed. So what has happened to all the people that used to work in construction, and are they likely to return?

We have only to cast our minds back to the height of the recession and the precipitate loss of many workers, including apprentices who were part way through their courses, to understand that poor practice in difficult times has done the industry few favours.

Nevertheless, handling the recruitment of new staff is an issue that can no longer be ignored. So how can companies now seeking that elusive new colleague do their best to persuade the next generation that the construction industry is a good viable long term career move?

The National Union of Students has set up a commission to examine the Future of Work. The NUS went out to ask 4000 students and recent graduates about their view of the world of work. It revealed some salutary and concerning findings.

About a third were pessimistic about the job market which is an irony given the situation of impending skill shortages. Respondents saw employers to be at the heart of the issue (not government) and particularly highlighted issues of low pay and no pay (as in internships) being key. The other important factor was the ‘catch 22’ conundrum of employers wanting work experience; half of the respondents asked saw that absence of experience was a huge barrier to employment. And yet, as we know, whilst there are many excellent work experience schemes available, the majority of employers do not offer this kind of opportunity.

Although the young people surveyed by the NUS didn’t see government as being the driver for change, many employers do. May 2015 sees our opportunity to choose the next government. All the main political parties have education and training as a key plank in their manifestos. Central to education policy is the approach taken to apprentices — always a part of the foundation of construction employment.

Policies do not differ greatly between the parties in this regard. All see apprenticeships as being a key part of future economic success. However, apprenticeships are now becoming a key issue with debate around gross numbers, levels of investment and interestingly, even producing a whiff of elitism.

Whilst no one would argue against the drive to improve overall educational standards, the idea that apprenticeships are open to those who ‘get the grades’ (Labour), suggests that those for whom vocational training is a more appropriate avenue to pursue than A levels or a degree, may find themselves shut out of the course which will lead them to a sound career. Similarly, current government proposals (Tory and LibDem) about change to apprenticeship schemes contain plans to change the point at which employer funding becomes available. This is proposed to alter from the beginning to the end of a course. Whilst this change is not so much of a problem for larger employers, for many SME employers (which are where many apprentices receive their training) the impact that this change will have on cash flow may be unsupportable leading to reductions in apprenticeship numbers.

So where does all this leave us? Employers are clearly in the driving seat as far as young people go so let’s not wait for government to lead. If we want to attract the best talent we need to look to our methods of recruitment, our promotion of the changing nature of construction industry, packages of benefits and the scope of training to ensure we give ourselves the best chance of getting the right people into our businesses. We need to consider party policy and vote accordingly. But most of all we need to get on with addressing this issue now and grasp the situation. After all, compared with the experiences of the recession, this is a good problem to have.

Julia Evans

Chief Executive


Tel: +44 (0)1344 465600





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