25th April 2018
Focus – Mind the gap!

Mind the gap! Tackling the skills challenge facing the UK construction industry

Construction has long been recognised as a major sector of the UK economy. It generates 6.7% of our GDP and employs over 2.93 million people, equivalent to around 10% of the UK workforce.

However, it now faces a growing manpower crisis. The origins of the skills gap in the construction industry can be traced back to the years before the recession in 2008, a time when hiring and training were not considered industry priorities. In the post-recession era it became apparent that there was a need for a major infrastructure overhaul, so the government committed itself to a number of high-profile projects such as HS2 and Cross Rail. Add to that the increased demand for residential property to ease the UK’s chronic housing shortage, and it’s easy to see how demand for skilled labour can markedly outstrip supply. And that was before Brexit added a question mark as to how many European construction workers might be able to work in the UK in future. Research shows that 26% of the UK construction workforce currently comes from other EU countries.

The government’s analysis of the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline report published last December estimates that will be around £600bn of public and private investment in infrastructure over the next decade. The list of over 700 major planned projects includes the building of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station and the expansion of Heathrow.

Education and training

The latest forecast by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) shows that there’s a need to recruit 158,000 construction workers across the various trades every year for the next five years.

The skills that are likely to be in demand include both new and traditional trades. Increasingly, business acumen and digital skills, project planning, contract and risk management and surveying expertise are going to be just as in demand as plasterers, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and tilers.

Clearly, there is much to be done, and this year sees the launch of a number of initiatives designed to tackle the underlying problems. The government has announced in its Industrial Strategy white paper that it will be launching a National Retraining Scheme to help equip construction workers with the skills they need, with an initial £64m invested in digital and construction training.

Apprenticeships are another key plank of the government’s strategy to tackle the skills shortfall, both by upskilling existing workers and attracting new talent to the industry. Many construction employers are already going down this path, with JCB investing £7.5m in their largest-ever intake of new apprentices. Firms including Balfour Beatty and Laing O’Rourke now offer degree apprenticeships in disciplines that span construction, project management and engineering. Last summer saw the first-ever quantity surveyor apprentices graduate from Liverpool John Moores University.

April sees the roll out of the CITB’s new training model and grant system that is designed to cut costs, reduce red tape and make training easier, particularly for smaller enterprises. One of its main objectives is to create a central training register for construction workers. This means that firms will be able to check the register to see what skills employees have acquired, helping to target the acquisition of new skills and avoid duplication in training.

Changing attitudes for a brighter future

However, to keep pace with increasing demand, many industry experts believe we need a major drive to encourage more young people to choose to take up trades like bricklaying and plumbing. But first, we may have to change some entrenched views. Research from the CITB shows that the overall appeal of construction as a career option is low, with the perception being that it’s just about ‘being outdoors and getting dirty’ and only suited to those who don’t get into college or university. However, with bricklayers earning between £40 and £60k a year, and experienced plumbers between £60 and £100k, it’s not hard to predict a bright future ahead for those who join the sector.

A culture change is needed to convince high-skilled professionals that a career offering the chance to work on iconic and innovative world-class projects that add substantially to the fabric of our lives is the best place for them to develop their bright ideas and clever thinking. If it can be seen that construction offers real career opportunities for the future, they will come.