The construction industry is suffering. Our workforce is aging, not enough new blood is coming into the profession and we’re at severe risk of losing the fine talent that we have long been proud of in Britain. Add to that the new threat that EU workers could return to their home countries following Brexit, and we’ve reached a crisis point. According to RICS, the construction industry could lose nearly 200,000 workers from the EU if we fail to maintain access to the single market . EU workers make up around 8% of the construction industry, and a much higher proportion in London. This could threaten some major infrastructure projects, not to mention housebuilding targets. We just don’t have enough skilled workers to meet increasing demand.
Around 300,000 builders and tradesmen left construction during and after the recession to find work elsewhere or retire. Most didn’t come back when construction improved, even when firms started recruiting. Those who did stay in the industry are aging. This has created a growing gap: not enough young people are coming through with sufficient expertise and experience to replace them.
The real concern is that no one sees it as ‘their’ problem. All too often, the creation of a new body or committee is seen as the solution. We seem to be very good at discussing the state of construction, and less effective at doing something about it. In my view, everyone needs to take responsibility – every individual in every company can do something to alleviate this crisis. And crisis it is.
Last year’s Farmer Review was commissioned to look at the labour model in construction, and the skills and pressures that limit the development of housebuilding and infrastructure. Subtitled ‘Modernise or Die’, the independent review was a damning comment on the ‘inexorable decline’ of the construction industry.
There are four key issues we should be addressing as a matter of priority:
1. Skilled labour shortages: we can’t get the skilled labour we need because companies aren’t investing in training as they did in the past.
2. Capacity: our population is growing fast and will continue to do so. Not enough houses are being built to meet increasing demand, partly because we can’t get the skilled labour we need.
3. Reputation: Construction has a bad reputation – fair or not. Small builders are tarred with the ‘cowboy’ brush. But large housebuilders have also gained a reputation for poor quality in the media, with critical reports from Which? magazine and Parliamentary groups.
4. Career choice: Parents don’t advise their children to go into construction. Not because of pay, but because it’s not seen as a worthy or exciting career. Hands-on craft and trade skills are no longer valued as they are in other countries. Few people boast about being builders.
Putting Construction Back on the Map
So what can we do about it? Some have pointed the finger at schools and colleges not doing enough to promote careers in construction. A lack of knowledge and understanding means that young people aren’t exposed to the variety of roles and opportunities available in construction.
However, it should be businesses that take the lead. If even half the companies in construction – no matter how big or small – were to connect with their local school or college and work with them to inform and educate young people about the opportunities, it would go a long way to improving the reputation of – and numbers in – construction.
Many companies no longer offer the apprenticeships and qualifications they once did. But investment in initial and ongoing training is vital – and it’s something every company, large or small, can do. The new Apprenticeship Levy, which came into force in April this year, is designed to ensure the Government meets its promise of 3 million apprentices by 2020. There are also incentives for companies with fewer than 50 employees, while CITB provides separate support specifically for construction companies. The Levy scheme seems more complicated than it could be – but that’s what you get for leaving it to government! And apprentices are worthwhile in their own right. Companies in construction can make up to £401 a week in productivity gains by employing an apprentice, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
We currently have 17 apprentices at IKO at the moment, as well as trainees across a wide range of areas including IT, Engineering, Customer Services, Technical Support and Production. But addressing the skills shortage is also about showing people what we’re doing and celebrating our achievements. For example, we’ve developed links with schools, colleges and University Technical Colleges as well as the local media through talks, career days, plant tours, sponsorship of community events and local sports clubs. We also support the Worshipful Company of Builders’ Merchants which actively promotes training within and awareness of the construction industry. It works – but we’re always trying to do more.
Proud to be in Construction
Ultimately, the shortage of skills won’t be resolved by committee, a change in government or legislation. If everyone speaks out for construction, we’d see a difference. Whether we work on the factory floor or onsite, we need to be proud of what we do and the industry we work in. We need to talk to our children, their friends, and their schools. I’m calling on every business to do something – however small – to promote our industry. The UK has a fantastic architectural history and one of the most impressive infrastructures in world. What we build is really good – we just need to shout about it!