The construction industry is expanding but with it a widening skills gap is opening up – the result of a failure to invest in apprenticeships and deliver quality training programmes post recession. In this exclusive column  Sally Peck calls for more money to be ploughed into rejuvenating the workforce and for a push at school level to suggest it as a viable career path – especially for women.

While Government economic stimulus measures are seeing a boom in the construction industry, the hangover from recession is lingering over the sector.

Recent data has revealed the number of vacancies in the industry has risen almost 40% in the past year and industry is struggling to meet demand with skilled workers.

So what’s gone wrong?

A bit of background

When the recession hit, construction contracted by 16.5% in the space of three years.

More than 350,000 bricklayers, electricians and site managers lost their jobs and, afraid the industry would not be secure for sometime, re-trained, found new employment or left the profession entirely with no intention of returning.

The industry cut back on training, stopped offering apprenticeships and desperately tried to cling on through one of the worst economic downturns of recent times.

And then things started to improve.

The sector began to recover, the Government introduced plans for new housing, the Help to Buy scheme was launched and mortgages were easier to come by.

Suddenly there was plenty of work – and nobody to do it.

Lack of fresh talent

Approximately one in five construction workers are approaching retirement age, and a further 26% are between 45 and 55 years old. Replacing these retirees alone presents a big recruitment challenge.

But in addition, research by the Construction Industry Training Board in January 2014 estimated that 182,000 extra jobs would be created in the next five years as the economy improves.

The trouble is that there are not enough qualified people to fill all these roles.

And that means there is a sudden and vital need to recruit to ensure that the industry has the workers it needs to protect its future.

What is being done?

Not enough and it is quite clear that this shortage of skills is going to hamper  economic recovery if we don’t move quickly to change this.

The Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors (RICS) found in its first quarter construction sector survey that 41% of firms were seeing labour shortages, with 58% reporting that financial constraints were preventing more work taking place.

The third annual Government Construction Summit, the UK’s most important annual construction event, saw Business Secretary Vince Cable talk about the skills shortage the industry faces and what help was required to stimulate and grow the economy.

The importance of investing in the skills shortage by creating apprenticeships was among suggestions he made.

He said: “I’d like the industry to start thinking five or ten years ahead. If I was to pick one area as a key priority it would be skills – what could bring the sector’s recovery to a shuddering halt, is a lack of skill.”

 

So what happens now?

If construction is going to continue to grow and pull our economy onwards and upwards, we need to do two things:

  1. Invest.
  2. Inspire.

The industry must ensure it has the capability to capitalise on any opportunities presented by the construction upturn.

This means spending money now by investing in attracting new talent and training existing employees.

We also need to work on changing the perception of construction as a viable career choice. Young people need to see the sector as a reliable industry – one with prospects.

Most have little idea of the wide range of employment opportunities available, so it is not surprising that many recruits join the industry only because a family member is already involved in construction.

The industry must overhaul its recruitment campaigns and change its image and culture if it is to become an attractive modern employment choice.

It must also look at it’s ability to retain staff. This includes looking to introduce better conditions and flexible working policies and room to progress.

Jobs for the girls

Women have made great advances in the world of work.

The employment rate for women continues to rise and today there are more women in work than ever before (now accounting for just under half of the workforce).

But, in construction progress has been abysmally slow.

The current situation therefore, provides us with a unique opportunity to change this – and drive forward a new surge of talent into the industry.

The sector can neither justify nor countenance remaining a ‘no-go area’ for women.

And in order to fill the skills gap it needs to recruit and retain more women – and not just in support roles.

Indeed, women must be central to the modernisation of the construction industry and it’s hope for the future.

Moving forwards

It’s high time we changed the image of the sector, made a sustained effort to encourage women – and men – to learn a trade, and worked on companies to re-introduce training schemes, apprenticeships and job progression programmes to ensure the industry has a fighting chance.

Change can happen if the will is there and one thing is abundantly clear – the industry can no longer just sit back and do nothing.

For more about Sally’s business Apex Scaffolding visit www.apexscaffold.co.uk and for details of sister company Apex Roofing visit www.apexroofinguk.com or join in the discussion on Twitter @apexanglia