Tackling the UK construction skills shortage

29 January 2020


The current UK construction workforce is reportedly too small to meet the UK Government’s mid 2020s housebuilding targets.

As part of its 2017 budget, the UK Government pledged to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s.

According to industry experts at PPE retailer Vizwear, however, the UK construction workforce is not large enough to deliver such a promise.

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) says the shortfall in the number of skilled construction workers in the UK is currently at its highest point since 2007.

The organisation further reports that, in order to get back on track, a further 200,000 workers will need to be recruited by 2020.

Vizwear believes that the main problem contributing towards the skills shortage is the image that the industry portrays.

Daniel Ure, a Vizwear representative, said, “The industry needs to attract a fresh workforce to keep up with demands, but for many on the outside, the thought of working in construction still conjures up images of wolf-whistling workmen on building sites.

“To attract a new stream of workers, the industry needs to shake this negative image and show how the industry has developed.”

It is also increasingly important to bring new workers to the industry, as data from the 2011 UK census showed that one in five construction employees were aged over 55. This means that by the early 2020s, when the industry should be hitting its homebuilding targets, most will have reached or be close to retirement age.

The biggest barrier facing the construction industry is presenting itself as a desirable career path to potential employees.

Vizwear offered the following suggestions for how construction companies can engage new workers in the industry:

1. Increase education

To ensure that the future workforce in construction is vibrant and engaged, young people need to be re-educated about what construction is really like

A survey created by L&Q Group discovered that only one in ten children between the ages of 16 and 18 would consider a career in construction, fearing that the industry would be ‘challenging and unexciting’.

Conversely, the students who said they would consider a construction career said that their reasoning was due to the excitement of the role.

Working closely with schools and colleges to promote the industry is a great way to show young people that there are a number of avenues their career path can take in construction. Setting up a formal work experience programme could attract future workers through a hands-on experience.

2. Don’t neglect training

It’s not just labour-intensive roles that are suffering from the skills shortage — there is also a demand for tech skills.

Rather than looking externally for these roles, use it as an opportunity to upskill current staff. Nurturing talent within the business is great for morale; plus, it will help to develop careers, skill sets and better utilise ambitious and forward-thinking workers.

There are also government-funded schemes available to help train future construction workers. Currently the government is midway through implementing an 18-month fund with a budget of £22 million (€26 million), which has already created 20 ‘on-site’ hubs for real world training.

3. Look for skilled workers in the right places

Other skilled worker groups from outside of the industry can offer a new talent pool from which the industry can recruit.

For example, over 14,000 leave the military every year with transferable skills at their disposal.

When hiring military leavers, construction firms can be assured that the workers can effectively follow instructions, work well as a team and can keep calm under pressure.

4. Address the gender imbalance

Another part of the problem is that construction has historically been a male-dominated industry. Between 2007 and 2016, reports found that the number of women workers in construction only rose by 0.7%, resulting in a total female workforce population of just 12.8% total.

According to Vizwear, educating female students is a crucial step that companies need to take, as only 22% currently work with schools to help break the stigma of construction. But it’s not just about attracting more women to the industry — companies need to make sure they’re not ignoring their current talent due to their gender.

For example, UK-based contractor Balfour Beatty has taken strides to address gender inequality by introducing an initiative to support women through career breaks for childcare.

5. Embrace modern methods of construction

Another problem impacting the industry’s image is the apparent lack of technological innovation.

The government has reportedly already been warned by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that an over-reliance on traditional building methods will see the UK fall short of its home-building targets.

To keep the industry on target, construction companies need to look outside the norm and embrace more modern techniques. From off-site construction, manufacturing and assembly to modular constructions, there are a number of avenues companies can take to improve efficiency while maintaining quality.

“The construction industry is always changing,” Ure said, “We’re constantly seeing exciting new innovations that allow us to work smarter and more efficiently.

“In order to make the most of new industry methods, it’s vital that new talent is found to close the skills gap. Construction is still trying to shake off its past image, but by pooling its resources into educating and training future generations and current talent, the industry can ensure it’s recruiting the right workers to hit its targets.”

On a more positive note, it looks as though the industry is indeed beginning to attract more workers. According to the latest quarterly job market report from CV-Library, an independent job board in the UK, job applications in the construction sector rose by 19.9% in the final few months of 2019.

The report looked at job market data throughout Q4 2019 and compares this with findings from the previous year. It reveals that the construction industry experienced one of the highest rises in applications in the UK, sitting in the top five sectors for applications received:

1. Hospitality (up 71.6%)

2. Charity (up 61.2%)

3. IT (up 38.1%)

4. Legal (up 29.7%)

5. Construction (up 19.9%)

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