Skilled construction workers eroding away?
The construction industry remains a vital area for employment, the economy and social growth but the growing skills gap appears to be threatening to derail a market that relies on its workforce more than most.
It is reported that 2.1 million people work in the construction industry but despite this there is not enough skilled labour coming through to fill the growing demand for skilled workers in this area. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has predicted that this lack of skills could impact 27,000 construction projects each year until 2019. The RICS survey also showed that 66% of surveying firms have already been forced to turn down work due to a lack of staff and this could be set to grow over the next five years.
Whilst confidence and the number of job opportunities in the sector are improving, the number of suitable candidates is not. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimates that more than 36,000 new workers a year will be needed to cover current demand. This is easier said than done though; more than half of employers in this area are finding it difficult to fill skilled vacancies. There is a real risk now that the current skills shortage will have a lasting, detrimental impact on expansion within the construction sector, including the possible decline or even disappearance of some businesses.
What has caused this?
A combination of factors is attributed to this skills shortage including a diminishing uptake in the profession, aging staff and a boom in investment.
The construction industry felt the full impact of the recession, reflected in dwindling numbers of apprenticeships and new workers entering the profession. However, apprenticeships are now increasing, with the support of the government’s ‘Apprenticeships Policy’ which includes a commitment to creating 3 million new apprenticeships between 2015 and 2020.
Another ongoing concern is the lack of younger workers to replace and/or be trained by older workers with the skills and knowledge relevant to the industry. The UK’s ageing population is mirrored in the construction industry, with a quarter of workers now over 50. Add to that the 400,000 workers aged over 55 who are planning to retire in the next decade and it seems even more likely that there will be insufficient numbers of skilled workers to meet the demand left behind.
Investment in construction projects is growing; the government hopes to build 275,000 affordable homes by 2020. However, in order to keep up with the government’s housing plans it is predicted that 1 million construction workers are needed, meaning the skills shortage puts the progress of these plans in doubt.
According to KPMG, the disparity between the supply and demand of skilled workers within the sector has made construction staff the most in demand within recruitment circles and in turn has meant that those who are most skilled are able to demand the salaries they wish.
What can you do?
There is no simple solution but it seems clear that further growth in the construction sector will only be possible if the growing skills shortage is addressed and tackled.
It will be important for employers in the construction sector to find the right balance between attracting new recruits and retaining current staff as well as ensuring a structured handover processes between workers retiring and leaving the business and those moving into these roles so that key skills and knowledge are maintained. This is likely to involve a review of the approach of businesses to staff development, including an increased focus on training, review of skills, benefits review and flexibility around ways of working.
Collaboration is one solution being suggested by many commentators, with business owners being encouraged to take the lead in addressing the current skills gap. The UK Commission of Employment and Skills has suggested a need for ‘greater collaboration between businesses, unions and the workforce.’
Businesses could work more closely with educational establishments, by reviewing their course offerings and ensuring their specific needs are meet as well as addressing more practical issues such as expectations in the workplace when joining a business environment.
What is clear is that for the construction sector to continue to grow, it will need to adopt a fundamentally different approach to developing and safeguarding its workforce for the future.