Meg Munn: A construction industry in need of modernisation

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THE biggest issue facing UK PLC is the gap between the numbers of skilled workers we require and those we have available. As an example, the most recent Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) UK Construction Survey confirmed that the skills shortage across Yorkshire and the Humber has reached its highest levels since its first survey back in 1998. Half of those replying to the survey reported difficulties recruiting staff, particularly bricklayers and quantity surveyors.

The construction industry also faces additional problems over the next few years. Approximately one in five workers are approaching retirement age, and a further 26 per cent are between 45 and 55 years old; replacing these retirees alone presents a big recruitment challenge. And research by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimates that 182,000 extra jobs will be created in the next five years as the economy improves.

Construction makes up 6.4 per cent of the economy, and struggled to add to overall UK growth as it recovers from a particularly deep recession. But recent business surveys suggest construction firms are starting to feel more upbeat, reporting the general election removed some uncertainty among customers. However, this sentiment is undermined by Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures for October which show a 2.2 per cent drop in construction output, which according to the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) exposes the growing impact of the skills shortage.

National housing need continues to rise, fuelled by population growth and a greater number of households. The demand for an additional 245,000 homes each year has led the CITB to estimate that housing will account for over a third of the UK’s total annual construction output between now and 2018. The requirement to repair and maintain properties and the modernisation of social housing create further opportunities.

It is clear that the construction industry cannot just sit back and do nothing, it will literally run out of workers. But the image of construction is of an unskilled labourer going from site to site, not of a skilled, well-paid worker engaged in a successful, long-term career in a modern industry. The industry must overhaul its recruitment campaigns and change its image and culture if it is to become an attractive modern employment choice.

Currently women represent around 11 per cent of the workforce in the construction sector, and as little as one per cent of the manual trades. The ONS noted that numbers of women who work as roofers, bricklayers and glaziers were so low as to be unmeasurable in its recent national survey. But getting women to consider a career in the construction sector is a big challenge, and there appears to be little concern in large parts of the industry about the low level of female employment. But change can happen if the will is there.

At the moment most young people have little idea of the wide range of employment opportunities available, so it is not surprising that many recruits join only because a family member is already involved in construction. We also need to wake up to the possibility of recruiting both women and men at a later stage in their life. While some roles in construction depend upon physical strength, many others require training and the expertise that comes with age and experience.

Apprenticeship programmes offer solutions to the skills shortage, and an option for young people who do not wish to progress into higher education. They allow businesses to recruit someone with the right attitude and work ethic who will then receive training to build specific professional skills. Businesses benefit by building a well skilled and loyal workforce, who may well bring fresh thinking and enthusiasm into a company.

Savvy companies invest in their future leaders, whilst up skilling their current workforce. Funds spent on apprenticeships is money well spent if it nurtures young talent to enable growth and performance. Every part of a talent development programme should be measured to ensure a return on investment.

As an industry we need to raise awareness of the wide range of careers available, as well as the increasing technical skills required in the sector: skills ranging from bricklaying, carpentry, electrical and plumbing to design, architecture and surveying.

Higher numbers of women are entering full-time construction training in colleges, but they are still not gaining entry into the workforce. Yet the nature of the jobs on building sites is changing, involving greater team working, communication and literacy skills – women can and should have a part of that.

The overall message is that there is much to be fixed. However, this will not happen without significant action. The Government needs to take a stronger lead in articulating the business case for change and helping to increase programmes currently in operation.

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