Closing the skills gap

The construction industry generates almost £90 billion annually and employs in excess of 2.93 million people1, and yet the ever-widening skills shortage is driving up wages and having a significant impact on the Government’s plan to build 300,000 homes every year in England alone.   But it’s not just building targets that need to be met, there are also the hugely important carbon reduction targets and the need to ensure buildings are properly insulated with high quality products and installed correctly to allow them to perform.
With the demand for tradespeople across all sectors of the construction industry outstripping supply, the skills shortage is a key constraint to the housebuilding industry severely impacting the quality of what is being built,  the ability to build on budget and ensuring that all the performance characteristics meet the both the design and regulatory requirements. How can the construction industry put in place measures that might put an end to the skills crisis?
The contributing factors of the construction skills shortage are well documented; from an ageing workforce not being replaced to a younger generation not seeing the industry as an attractive and viable option. Britain’s decision to leave the EU has only added to the industry-wide fear over the building skills shortage. Of the UK’s 270,653 migrant construction force, about 45% are workers from EU countries. When the UK’s divorce from the continent is finalised, there is a real fear that many employees who have arrived from overseas will leave, taking their building skills and experience with them.  
Back to school
Inspiring the next generation to take-up a career in construction is fundamental to filling the current skills gap long-term. Changing the outdated and negative perceptions of the industry is part of this. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) recently asked a group of 14 to 19-year-olds which careers interested them – construction only scored 4.2 out of 10. According to the survey, young people claimed that construction means ‘being outdoors and getting dirty’. Young people overlook the fact a career in construction is incredibly diverse and is an industry with cutting-edge technologies, such as robotics, digitisation and modular building techniques – key to attracting a tech savvy younger generation. Companies in the industry need to reach out and engage with students, parents and teachers to create a better image of construction, right through from manufacturing, engineered solutions to site management.
The industry needs to expand its recruitment and attract more women and people from ethnic diversities, which are currently under-represented. Women represent just 13% of the workforce, a shocking statistic considering the skills shortage. A fundamental shift towards inclusiveness is necessary while a joined-up approach between industry, the government and education sector – beginning with children at primary school and then throughout education – will pave the way towards a more inclusive and accessible industry.
The government has launched a number of initiatives to help plug the skills gap and has set a new target of three million new apprentices by 2020 across all sectors.  A £34 million investment in construction training and an apprenticeship levy – estimated to raise £3 billion a year – might go some way to securing a skilled and stable workforce. Alternative educational models such as part-time degree apprenticeships will also widen the route into the industry.
Off-site fabrication
Modern methods of construction can also play a part in plugging the gap by reducing on-site labour whilst at the same time addressing the high demand for new buildings. The increased use of off-site fabrication and systems such as structural insulated panels (SIPS), modular buildings and pre-engineered insulated roof systems for example can encourage greater efficiency and higher productivity within the sector, give a much needed boost to the UK housing supply capacity and ensure that the regulatory targets for energy efficiency are met or even exceeded.  Rethinking the way we design, engineer and construct buildings will help deliver projects quicker, better and with a greater degree of precision.
Schemes such as the Each Home Counts Quality Mark will go a long way to ensuring that insulation measures are properly installed by skilled tradespeople and link this in with the Energy Company Obligation, this will ensure that consumers get the standards they expect and deserve.
When it comes to addressing the chronic skills shortage, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, rather a broad range of measures which can relieve the pressure on construction companies trying to compete within their sectors. The built environment is evolving all the time and the demand for construction has never been greater which means addressing the skills gap is now more critical than ever.  It’s down to construction companies, the Government and our educational system to play their part in closing the skills shortage gap.
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