Nathan Priestley: Britain’s desperate need to build construction skills as Brexit approaches

Yorkshire's construction industry is facing a skills shortage.
Yorkshire's construction industry is facing a skills shortage.
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IT is no secret that the construction sector relies heavily on EU workers to plug the skills gap – currently nine per cent of Federation of Master Builders’ construction workers are from the EU.

However, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealing the number of EU workers coming to Britain has hit a low not seen since 2012, I believe much more needs to be done on home ground to attract young people to the industry and train them up to suitable standards.

Cities like Leeds will only flourish if the construction sector has the right skills, says Nathan Priestley.

Cities like Leeds will only flourish if the construction sector has the right skills, says Nathan Priestley.

Without this investment and reassessment of construction higher education, then the impact of Brexit – combined with the high building targets set by the Government – could be crippling to an already overstretched industry. Such a huge skills gap is having a direct effect on many aspects of Yorkshire’s building capabilities, from rising labour costs to low house building levels – two-thirds of Yorkshire’s council areas are still failing to get homebuilding rates back to pre-recession rates a decade after the global financial crash.

This is worrying when recent analysis of government figures shows Leeds has the fourth highest long-term annual need for homes outside of London.

With Government targets of building an additional 300,000 properties a year by the mid-2020s, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) recently reported that 170,000 new recruits are needed by 2021 to keep up with demand.

With Brexit looming, if the sector doesn’t respond proactively, it risks fuelling a perfect storm that will limit our construction outputs even further.

Nathan Priestley is chief executive of the Priestley Group.

Nathan Priestley is chief executive of the Priestley Group.

We need to change our approach to higher education if we are to attract the very best talent. In particular, we need a new generation of site and contract managers who have the knowledge, practical skills and autonomy to get things done.

However, the current state of higher education construction courses places far too much emphasis on academic achievement, rather than practical experience. As a result, the standard of construction training has declined over the last two decades, and that’s something we need to fix.

Given this, it’s vital to make inherent changes to how university courses are structured. First, it’s well known that many current construction degrees do not provide the necessary training for dealing with real world site scenarios. By focusing too heavily on theory, the industry is at risk of producing a new generation of future leaders who struggle to work proactively and pragmatically.

Closer collaboration between universities, contractors and companies is crucial. For example, we’ve partnered with Bradford College to provide on-site training in either Bradford or Leeds to their students working towards HNV and HNC qualifications. This will see them shadow our senior on-site teams at some of our key developments, including Conditioning House in Bradford.

Of course, students need to learn the theory for working on live construction sites. However, the paradox is that without rigorous practical sessions and application of knowledge to sit alongside classroom-based learning, they will never truly build the right set of skills.

The large responsibility for initial professional development gets passed on to the construction companies hiring new talent. It is immediately evident when someone has little or no on-site experience, and bringing them up to standard is time-consuming, costly work.

We also need to establish a dialogue that positions construction as a desirable, professional career path and showcases the variety of roles available.

A fundamental change to the structure of construction higher education is one answer. Four-year courses present a much stronger learning path, incorporating typical three-year academic learning with a one-year placement. Spending six months industry training as a site manager and another as a contracts manager would ensure a comprehensive level of understanding and produce a higher quality of future leaders. Similar to law programmes, where a mixture of theoretical work and hands-on experience determines success, this will help to attract higher-calibre applicants.

A curriculum that better incorporates academic learning with on-site teaching would help to revolutionise the construction world. Many young site and contract managers have the enthusiasm and passion for the job, but are let down by academia. It’s time to tackle the issue head on.

Nathan Priestley is chief executive of the Leeds-based Priestley Group.