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Skills shortage in the construction industry

Posted: 27th November 2013

Tony Burton

CIC Deputy Chairman & Senior Partner at Gardiner and Theobald LLP

The recent forecasts for the UK economy suggest that, at last, things may be improving. The governor at the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has said that the UK recovery has taken hold and expects un-employment to fall sooner than was forecast.

In the construction sector we are also coming round to the idea that we can at last look forward rather than backwards. Whilst this is very positive, we need to consider the impact it will have on resources. With renewed growth comes the need for more people and skills.

As we emerged from the last recession we entered a skills shortage. It took the construction industry about 15 years to replace the more than half a million people it had lost.

As we emerge from this recession, which is widely acknowledged as the longest and deepest in memory, we are likely to face the same critical shortage of skills. We are also entering a time when we will see more people retiring from the industry than new entrants joining it.

Additionally, evidence is already emerging of greater mobility in the workplace with people moving for ‘better offers’. So, unless we increase the supply of skills and people joining the industry, all we will see is an increase in the cost of employing those people already with us. I am very much in favour of paying people what they are worth but I do not want to see enforced salary escalation caused by a skills supply shortage. Particularly as this still leaves too many people working too hard through a continued lack of resource.

It is therefore vital that all of us involved in construction and property work together to inspire the next and future generations of school leavers and convince them that they can have full and rewarding careers in our sector.

This must involve not just employers, but professional bodies and academic institutions, and a strong positive leadership from Government and the Construction Leadership Council.

The Chief Construction Advisor, Peter Hansford, has called for us all to “get out there and shout about construction”. He puts the people aspect of Construction 2025 at the top of the agenda with a positive campaign to change the image of construction.

As part of this campaign, we need to start with education. How many young people in schools, if asked to name a profession, would readily quote a profession from our industry? We need to become an industry of choice for both boys and girls making choices about their future career.

The National Careers Service website needs to be revamped for construction (as it is going to be for engineering). Search terms need rethinking so that those researching a career in construction can actually learn about it. At the moment, it seems that you already need to know what a quantity surveyor (QS) is if you have any hope of finding it on that site. And once you do find it, the information on there is inaccurate and certainly does not describe the career I’ve enjoyed!

Next we need to look at diversity. Only 14% of people involved in construction are women, and only 2% are from ethnic minorities.

Of qualified QSs in the UK and Ireland, only 8% are women and 4% are from ethnic minorities. For trainee QSs the figures rise to 15% women and 12% ethnic minorities. (The latter is the only figure that is representative of the UK working population).

Across the whole industry the figures are rising but we clearly have a lot to do. The recent ‘Open Door’ initiative from the UK Construction Group has allowed people to see how we go about creating the fabulous buildings which remain as our marketing collateral for 50, 60 or more years.

And there are many other initiatives from various parts of the industry. If we are to have enough resource with the right skill, we need a whole industry initiative to attract talent into our sector. Without this we will simply not have enough resource or the skill base to deliver the construction projects, building and infrastructure that we already know will be needed.

Finally, we need to look at funding. As a response to the skills shortage in engineering, Business Secretary, Vince Cable, recently announced a number of measures to attract people to that profession, which is backed by almost £50 million of funding from various sources.

This is EXACTLY the kind of positive leadership we need to see to attract talented young people to the construction professions.

We should all support Peter Hansford in his cry to change the image of our industry and shout about construction. We cannot create good people with vital skills overnight but we do need to start now if we are to achieve the vision for our industry set out in Construction 2025.

So can construction get the same support as engineering? With the links between industry and Government at a better level and stronger than at any time in my career I would like to think that we can.

Contributor: Tony Burton is Deputy Chairman of the Construction Industry Council and Senior Partner at Gardiner and Theobald LLP. For more information on Tony and Gardiner & Theobald visit