For many years, it has been widely understood that the construction industry is facing a skills crisis. As successive generations of skilled construction workers have aged and approached retirement, their shoes have not been filled with eager recruits ready to make their mark on the sector. Indeed, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has predicted that the industry will need to hire over 250,000 new recruits between now and 2026 to meet current UK construction demand.
Typically, this situation has been attributed to poor perceptions of the construction industry among young people. A 2017 report from the CITB suggested that, despite some progress having been made, “young people still see the industry as being low qualified, mundane and unglamourous, and focused on dirty, outdoor work, suitable only for those who are physically strong.”
Shifting perceptions… and the blame?
The latest research, however, appears to show a growing positivity among young people towards careers in the construction sector, with a 2022 survey showing that the majority of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 (56%) now see construction as an attractive career path. Only 16% believed it to be unattractive.
So, if perceptions of construction are increasingly improving, then to what other reasons can we attribute the continuing lack of skilled workers entering the industry?
Looking a little deeper into the issue, another problem appears to be emerging: not that of recruitment, but of retention. For example, it has long been a struggle not only to attract, but to retain, female construction talent. According the Royal Academy of Engineering, for instance, 57% of female engineers drop off the professional register by the age of 45, compared with just 17% of their male counterparts. A 2021 research study looking at the challenges and barriers facing women in the construction industry suggested that the industry’s current working culture, including a lack of flexible hours and the difficulties of balancing a successful career with family life, could be to blame.
A change in leadership style
According to Dave Stitt, a specialist business coach who works with construction firms to help them change their management style and effect positive change across their business and the wider industry, the default management culture in construction can be described as ‘command and control’. In an article published in Construction Management, he said that it is this ‘my way or the highway’ stance “which prevents us from creating work environments that are inspiring and engaging.”
When, instead, managers “stop giving orders and instead start conversations with their people about how they’ll fulfil their responsibilities, this changes the dynamic.”
Attracting and retaining talent in a post-COVID world
Employee retention has become even more vital since the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a seismic shift in working patterns and caused many employees to re-evaluate what they wanted from their jobs. We have seen an increased number of people quitting their jobs and seeking pastures new in a phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘The Great Resignation’. So, what can construction companies do to retain their staff in a post-COVID world and do their bit in resolving the skills crisis?
- Prioritise employee satisfaction
Construction can be a highly pressured industry, with tight deadlines and even tighter profit margins leading to a fast-paced work environment that leaves little time for anything else. Even so, firms are likely to get the most out of employees who feel satisfied, valued and appreciated in their role. Even the little things, like company social evenings, ‘Employee of the Month’ schemes and recognition of good work, can go a long way towards retaining satisfied staff.
- Have an open culture
The traditional ‘command and control’ approach to management may have worked in the past, but these are different times. Young people entering the industry today expect a more flexible, creative and collaborative environment where they are able to contribute, open up productive conversations and discussions, and generally feel that they are having a positive impact.
- Factor in career progression
A 2021 study of the ‘Generation Z’ cohort’s expectations for the workplace found that today’s young people do not buy into the concept of a ‘job for life’. Instead, they expect to move jobs every three to five years – and sooner if they are unhappy – using each job to develop their skills and progress their careers. This means that offering career progression to employees is no longer optional when it comes to retention. Setting out a clear path for development and upward progression could mean the difference between losing a skilled worker after just a couple of years, or retaining their skills, knowledge and experience for many years to come.
A turning point
With the impacts of the pandemic still being clearly felt across the UK labour market, the construction industry is at a turning point. We hope to see increasing numbers of firms actively working to transform their business environments into places where new generations of talent can thrive, develop, and become the skilled workers the country so desperately needs.