Sunday, August 10, 2014

UK Construction – Is a skills shortage really a surprise?

It clear for everyone to see that there is currently a skills shortage within the UK construction industry, a problem that is likely to get worse before it gets better.  There needs to be a radical re-think into the manner in which we attract people into the industry, but equally as important is how we actually keep them.

At present construction is prominent in the news every single day and increasingly the topic revolves around a skills shortage.  Having worked in the UK construction industry for many years I would suggest that a skills shortage is an inevitable result of the nature of the construction industry and really should not be a surprise to anyone.  In a recent article, Building Magazine (online) highlight the current chronic lack of skills within the UK construction, suggesting that the skills shortage is now at its highest level for six years (Link):

‘Fears of skills shortages in the construction industry hit their highest level for six years in the second quarter of 2014, with 51% of firms saying there are insufficient workers to meet demand, according to the latest RICS UK construction market survey. The survey, which reports a balance of positive responses against negative, showed skills shortages were particularly acute in quantity surveying and bricklaying, where 54% and 59% of respondents, on balance, reported shortages respectively’

The issue was also highlighted in an article early this month in the Telegraph on-line (Link):
‘The scale of the skills shortage in the booming construction sector has been uncovered by data showing the number of vacancies in the industry has risen almost 40pc in the past year. There were 18,000 vacancies in construction in the three months to May according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, a rise of 5,000 on the same period in 2013. Government stimulus measures such as Help to Buy are contributing to the rise but construction – which employs a total of 2.1m people – is still suffering from the after effects of the recession according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB)’

In reality the fact that there is a skills shortage will not come as a surprise to many who work within the construction industry, as the cyclical nature of the construction industry inevitably results in a large turnover of personnel.  When times are tough construction personnel will either choose to seek career opportunities in other sectors or will be made redundant or ‘layed off’, as construction companies contract whilst adjusting to tougher economic conditions. 

In the UK between 2008 and 2012/13 we experienced not just a recession, but a ‘double dip’ recession and only narrowly avoided a ‘triple dip recession’.  During this period construction suffered significantly with many construction companies going out of business.  Those that did survive found themselves in an exceptionally competitive market which required them to make some serious business decisions just to enable them to stay in business.  One of the first things to suffer during this period for many companies was the training budget.  Having spoken to numerous employers during this period when trying to find placement opportunities for our undergraduate building students, the message was generally consistent, ‘we cannot afford to take anyone on right now, but contact us again when things pick up’.  I am sure that this was replicated across all sectors of the construction industry and at all levels, particularly the construction trades. Some might say that this is just a commercial reality, however this will undoubtedly be one of the main reasons why we have a skills shortage when things eventually start to improve, just like they are now. I wonder how many good quality people we have lost to other industries when they could not find work in the construction industry during this period?

The cyclical nature of the construction industry and the negative news that goes along with it during an economic downturn will do little to convince young people that construction will provide a secure future for them.   If this is added to the fact that jobs are more difficult to come by during these periods it is easy to see why young people may consider careers in other sectors.  This will also be a contributing factor to a skills shortage as we need a regular supply of ‘new blood’ to replace those who are retiring or leaving the construction industry.

The current UK Government clearly see Apprenticeships as a way of bridging the skills gap and business secretary Vince Cable has recently given his support to a new commission which is being introduced to oversee apprenticeship.  The Telegraph on-line report (Link):

‘A commission to investigate the quality of apprenticeships in the construction industry and the number of people taking up the training programmes is being launched to help ensure the sector has enough skilled workers. The cross-party project is being launched today by think-tank Demos to examine vocational training across all sectors, though it will focus on construction. The Commission on Apprenticeships comes after an analysis by the Construction Industry Training Board found that the building industry needs 120,000 apprentices over the next five years to fill an emerging skills gap. Research shows that the number of people completing construction apprenticeships has plunged by almost 75pc since the financial crisis, with just 3,760 apprentices completing training in 2012-13, compared with 14,250 four years ago’

On the basis that we have a general election next year some would argue that this type of initiative is introduced to win votes and in reality there is no guarantee that the current government will be in place to see it through.  Trying to introduce 120,000 apprentices into the construction industry over the next five years is all well and good but what about the current shortage and the needs of the near future? With a little foresight would it not have been better for the Government to invest in apprenticeships during the difficult economic period in anticipation that we would need skilled workers to sustain a recovery?  In actual fact what happens is that the Government take a reactive rather than a pro-active approach which only serves to get us into the predicament we now find ourselves in.  No doubt politicians will say that they do not have a crystal ball however they do not need a crystal ball to know that the construction industry always recovers after a recession and usually very strongly. All that is needed is a little forethought into preparing for a recovery that can be sustained, rather than waiting for productivity and output to increase and then start scratching their heads and asking ‘where are all the workers?’

It clear for everyone to see that there is currently a skills shortage within the UK construction industry, a problem that is likely to get worse before it gets better.  There needs to be a radical re-think into the manner in which we attract people into the industry, but equally as important is how we actually keep them.  Government policy and funding needs to take a much longer term approach to ‘training and retaining’ to try to avoid the chronic skills shortages that we are seeing now and have seen after previous recessions. If we continue with the same short sighted approach we have adopted in the past then all we are doing is stifling recover which does not just affect the construction industry but wider sectors of the economy also.

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1 comment:

  1. Oh the irony of it all, during the recession ( I along with many other) bricklayers were mearlly tossed aside, every where you looked, no work. Then low and behold as soon as we come out of recession all you hear is where are all the bricklayers, I'll tell out where they are, they've gone out of the trade to save their livelly hoods, not like myself who had to go bankrupt, not that I've ever owned a home or had a credit card, I was taken down by other peoples dept crisis causing me to have no work, to pay my few bills I did have, so do tell me how your going to sell the building trade to young people, you can come into a booming trade where your treated like scum due to the fact you are manual workers, have companies regualy rip you off on your measure, when you leave to another job you loose your week in hand for no reason other than because they can, getno regual money as its all price work which means you earn what you do but that in its self is limited by whether you can get materials or work ahead, hear in Yorkshire a "brick baron" has take over nearly all the big house building firms work, so you have no choice but to work for them or no work. That in its self drives down wages due to no competition in the market. And then if they do decide to come into the building trade, if, they may be able to get a mortgage not likely as they will have to be self employed as a sub contractor because non of the companies want us on the books, so they can lay you off at a minutes notice if the market slows, but if they do get one and a car on the tick sect, they can look forward to loosing everything they've worked for when the next recession hits and they then find them selves in the position of no work.
    Tom McGoun