Skills Shortage in Construction

Terry Stocks
Digital and technological changes to the built environment bring their own solutions to skill shortages.

We’re in trouble if we don’t get more people in to the construction industry. This is an ageing sector - the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) reports that 400,000 skilled workers will reach retirement age in the next ten years. That’s in addition to the estimated 182,000 jobs needed in the sector over the next five years. The Q4 2015 RICS UK Construction Market Survey poll found over 60 percent of respondents thought the skills shortage would affect all trades and there were similar figures for professional services.

These shortages don’t sit well with the much-publicised plans for a mature digital economy and a high-performing construction industry that delivers significant growth. The UK government has issued the revised Construction Strategy 2016 - 2020; the reinvigorated Construction Leadership Council is stewarding delivery of the Industrial Strategy for Construction (Construction 2025) and the 2016 Budget has allocated funding to develop the next stage of a Digital Built Britain. These are encouragingly firm commitments to keep UK construction at the forefront of technology and improved output. However, if our skills don’t keep pace with these aspirations, we’ll fail to meet those ambitious targets of better, quicker, cheaper, greener.

The government’s bold move towards Building Information Modelling (BIM) has harnessed a catalyst for change, igniting BIM’s potential as the 'golden thread'...

The government’s bold move towards Building Information Modelling (BIM) has harnessed a catalyst for change, igniting BIM’s potential as the 'golden thread' that promotes early discussion around delivery and construction options, early contractor and supplier engagement, and larger-scale use of Design for Manufacture (DFMA) and off-site solutions. This challenges the employment status quo, moving away from traditional trade-based skill-sets, where we have significant shortages, to a growing technical requirement for BIM proficiency, logistics and manufacturing.

At the production end, DFMA utilises a less specialised skill-set. A workforce equipped to handle modular off-site production and installation will require less specialist training and will enable the industry to better utilise its trained skill-sets. The CITB report Construction 2030 and Beyond: The Future of Jobs and Skills in the UK Construction Sector (PDF,0.5MB) is hopeful: "A shock might be necessary to stimulate the realisation of the vision for construction which the leaders of the industry and the government are seeking through the industrial strategy for construction. It could be that the impact of a few forward thinking contractors moving rapidly ahead in the use of BIM and off-site is enough of a shock to stimulate a few other contractors who have the resources to follow, in time-honoured construction industry fashion."

Construction should be seen as a high-tech industry, with BIM and 3D modelling introduced in school and college construction programmes, demonstrating the application of data analytics through the fast-growing Digital Built Britain...

The overarching answer is to promote construction to a wider community. Construction should be seen as a high-tech industry, with BIM and 3D modelling introduced in school and college construction programmes, demonstrating the application of data analytics through the fast-growing Digital Built Britain, SMART Cities (PDF,0.5MB)  and smart building agendas. We must also promote construction to the non-specialist, lower skill-set and part-time workforces, highlighting the opportunities presented by offsite, modular and other lean construction manufacture approaches. And, of course, we need the current specialist trades to continue undertaking project site works, testing and management of projects that use DFMA, and to provide the skills for the more traditional solutions that will still be a requirement.

It’s about attracting a wider and differing skill-set into an industry that doesn’t just build things, but provides the environment we live and work in. An industry that reduces global warming through more efficient built environment solutions – an industry that improves lives and provides opportunities to everyone and at every level.

Initiatives to support the industry and its working environments must be embraced by government, industry, unions, and employers, as part of the Public Sector (Social Value) Act 2012 (PDF,0.3MB) requirements and supported by organisational Corporate Social Value commitments. These outcomes can be focused on delivering opportunities that address the construction skills agenda.

...providing young people with opportunities that otherwise would not exist, these types of schemes support the construction skills agenda.

One such scheme is the Professional Construction Apprentice Academy, a social value initiative provided through the Welsh Roads Framework. Our Built Environment Consultancy Services Partnership Ltd (BE.CSPL) joint venture partner Arcadis is one of the incumbent providers, working with schools, colleges of further education, universities, RICS and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), to set up a professional apprenticeships programme. The programme moves local young people into paid employment and sponsors day release college and degree study, and on to chartered RICS or ICE membership. Faithful+Gould and Atkins are also participants, offering placements to several apprentices. As well as providing young people with opportunities that otherwise would not exist, these types of schemes support the construction skills agenda.

Sally Speed, future talent director at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) commented: "The construction skills crisis is slowing growth in a sector that is vital to UK plc. Unless the government looks to address the problem urgently, some of its key housing and infrastructure programmes could soon face crippling delays and spiralling costs. To tackle the problem, the government must deliver a new skills strategy that will enable industry, unions, and educators to work together and deliver real solutions. Apprenticeships alone will not be enough. Ministers must look to draw a link between education, future careers and skills. Employers need to take the lead in improving skill levels, providing more vocational pathways to work and actively engaging with our country’s schools and colleges."

Certainly the industry faces a skills shortage that could de-rail construction output targets. By harnessing the changing technological environment, and being part of the disruptive change, we have the answer - we just need to recognise it!

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