Bridging the construction skills gap

Doka UK 8 February 2019.- It is no secret that the UK construction industry is experiencing a prolonged and increasing skills shortage, but what is the current situation and forecast for 2019 and beyond? What public resources are needed to improve this predicament? What can construction companies do to attract skilled personnel into the industry? In this article, we delve further into this topic, highlighting analysis with reference to various sources, including UK Construction Media, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), Design and Build UK, amongst others.

Firstly, we take a look into an article which includes comments from Mark Beacom, Operating Director at the Human Resources Consultant Michael Page recently published by UK Construction Media.

The construction industry has undergone a number of changes over the past 50 years and new skills are beginning to emerge – but the rate of innovation and adoption has been very slow[1]. As a result, companies must ensure current and future employees are equipped with the necessary skills to help fill the ever-widening skills gap the industry is facing. It is essential to a company’s growth to invest in employees by offering up-to-date training, providing apprentice schemes and harnessing new technologies that are shaping and defining the construction industry.

However, current market uncertainty, driven largely by Brexit, has led to a decline in the number of people applying for jobs in the construction industry; records from Michael Page indicate a 37% decline in job applications. Traditionally, the workforce in construction has been supported by the influx of labour from Eastern Europe. However, the supply of labour coming from those regions has declined since the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, according to the CIPD.[2] As the industry faces a decline in applications this will become a critical issue in the form of a shortage of workers with the right skill set.

As a result, the industry needs to reconsider its recruitment processes to set itself up for future success and to harness the opportunities provided by recent investments.

Apprenticeship programmes

Apprenticeship programmes are a useful tool in helping to tackle the property and construction industry’s skills shortage crisis, so businesses should look to invest in them. Such programmes are essential to the construction sector because they give companies the opportunity to appeal to a younger demographic and prepare workers with the necessary skills to enter the workforce. While this doesn’t solve the immediate shorter-term issues, it is undoubtedly a positive step towards developing home-grown talent in the UK. Businesses can place more emphasis on encouraging school leavers and graduates into the property and construction industry, by utilising the government appointed apprenticeship levy or introducing training programmes into their business strategy.

Specialist recruiters

Businesses can also look to specialist recruiters to boost applications from a younger talent pool. There are many recruiters who are committed to helping young people prepare for the world of work. Many offering a free to use service for job seekers and will assist in supporting youth employability. Many offer a place for students looking for internships or apprenticeships and employers looking to hire them to connect directly. Through this, recruitment agencies can place a great deal of talented young individuals into the property and construction sector, giving them the opportunity to develop the skills needed.


Another aspect to consider is for businesses to ensure they are recruiting talent from a diverse pool. Businesses will need to focus on encouraging both females and BAME (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities) candidates into the industry. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that female representation in property and construction as a whole is considerably low, with women filling only 14% of all roles in construction. In addition, ONS figures show that BAME candidates filled only 5.5% of built environment roles; a clear indication there is more to be done. The solution will arguably be a series of marginal gains; no one thing is going to fix the issue, it’s going to be a collection of smaller things that are going to give the industry the boost that it needs.

The challenge for the construction sector is to not only recruit candidates from a wider talent pool, but also to focus on hiring skilled professionals who are trained to use the emerging technologies that are now being implemented in this sector. Businesses must not only accept these changes but capitalise on them. However, as with any change of this magnitude, the benefits offered by the implementation of emerging technologies, and use of artificial intelligence (AI) in particular, are met with some challenges. Most notably businesses will need to ensure they are equipped with the right tools, staff and skills to embrace AI and automation.

At this juncture, skilled employees are essential – and we anticipate a change in the skills that businesses across the construction sector will be demanding from their employees and prospective hires. As we continue to see AI and automation adoption increase in the sector, we expect to see a rise in employers expanding the skill sets they require from new employees and AI experience becoming ever more valuable.

A boost from The Construction Industry Training Board

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) have recently opened a £5 million funding opportunity to help underrepresented groups into the construction industry. These include the following:

  • young people who are not in education, training or work
  • the long-term unemployed
  • Service Leavers who left the military at least 12 months ago
  • women wishing to join construction
  • full-time learners (focused on CBE Diploma students)

Their Pathways into construction scheme aims to connect employers with people who do not traditionally enter construction. It will also benefit those who are not in training or employment and want to enter the sector, but find it hard to do so.

Stephen Cole, Head of Careers Strategy at CITB, says: “CITB’s new commission, Pathways into Construction opens up a huge opportunity for the industry. With Brexit on the horizon, the fund will widen employers’ pool of domestic talent, diversify the industry and increase opportunities for those on the margins of construction, improving social mobility.

Most recent initiatives in the construction sector

Construction is a major sector within the UK economy, which supports and generates millions of jobs. The latest report published by The Office for National Statistics indicates that construction output in Great Britain exceeded £14 billion for the first time in the monthly series since the monthly records began in 2010. The new high of £14.042 billion represents a 28.7% growth over the last five years, which was helped by a 0.6% growth in construction output during November 2018 when compared to the previous month. 

Go Construct Online report that in the next five years the UK should expect 232,000 jobs to be created within the industry. Many of these will be using new and exciting techniques, technologies and materials to create buildings that are smart, sustainable and energy efficient. New technologies are being introduced to survey and maintain existing structures too; the use of aerial drones for survey and analysis of buildings, virtual reality to design and visualise structures and 3D printers.

Further to this, a report on behalf of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) – ‘Unlocking construction’s digital future: A skills plan for industry’, addresses how modern technologies such as 3D printing and drones can increase productivity, transform efficiency and help attract people to the sector. Key research findings include:

  • Digital tech being used in construction is not cutting-edge
  • Better use of data by everyone in the industry is central to digital transformation
  • Skills for individual tech elements are less important than broader soft skills such as creativity and problem solving – from new entrants to CEOs
  • Industry lacks a shared vision of what digitalisation should achieve for the sector.

Widen the industry’s appeal 

One major concern for the UK construction sector is the ever-increasing ageing workforce teamed with the decline of younger skilled workers entering the industry. Design and Build UK address this key issue:

The construction industry is rapidly becoming an ageing workforce, and the rate of retirement looks set to increase, as 22% of the current workforce are over 50 and 15% are in their 60s. At the same time, the industry is also losing younger workers to competing sectors where work is perceived as more stable or appealing and pay is more competitive.

There are a number of reasons why young people are not drawn to a career in construction; many of them are either not aware of the variety of jobs available in the sector or perceive the ones they do know about as offering an undesirable or uncertain future.

With an ageing workforce and a dwindling pipeline of skilled young workers, the construction industry has reached a turning point. To date, about one fifth of all vacancies in the wider construction sector cannot be adequately or permanently filled, because employers are unable to recruit staff with the right skills, qualifications or experience.

One key way to address these negative perceptions and to encourage more young people into construction is for businesses within the industry to engage with schools and colleges. More needs to be done to educate pupils – as well as and their parents and teachers – about what job options are available and what a career in construction might actually look like. It is equally important to find better ways of promoting the industry to women and students from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects who would not typically consider a career in construction.

Bridging Brexit

There is also growing concern throughout the industry that more and more skilled tradespeople from the EU who are currently working for construction companies in the UK will leave the country due to immigration issues or fears. Approximately 10% of the workforce in the UK construction industry is comprised of migrants, 7% of whom are EU nationals; that’s more than the percentage of EU nationals working in all other industries in the UK. With approximately 165,000 construction jobs currently being filled by EU nationals, the industry simply cannot afford to lose this contingent.

Several industry leaders have expressed their concerns about the effects of a possible hard Brexit on the UK’s construction industry. According to Brian Berry, the current skills shortages would be considerably worse were it not for the skilled labour from the EU. Regarding immigration fears, he has said: “It is not in anyone’s best interest to pull the rug out from under the sector by introducing an inflexible and unresponsive immigration system.”

Indeed, with Brexit fast approaching and all of the uncertainty that it brings with it, more needs to be done within the industry and at the government level to ensure that companies are able to retain and continue investing in migrant workers.

Increases and improvements in Internship Programmes

According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), the industry will need to employ over 150,000 new workers by 2021 in order to keep up with current demand. One of the ways in which the industry and the UK government are attempting to tackle this is through the recruitment of apprentices.

With the Government’s commitment to an additional 3,000,000 apprenticeships across all industries by 2020, over £1 billion have been invested into training and apprenticeship programmes; however, these programmes alone do not guarantee jobs.

While many SME construction companies have yet to take advantage of these apprenticeship programmes, others have been guilty of relying on apprenticeship schemes to complete a specific job, only to put their interns back in the training pool once the project was finished. If the industry is to survive – let alone thrive – in the next few years, we need to make a commitment young people, through offering them a clear path of opportunity and support.

A more resolute commitment from the government to invest in major construction projects could also help businesses plan their work flow and identify skills gaps early enough to ensure suitably trained young people are available and ready for work. Close collaboration between businesses and training colleges can ensure that students learn the necessary skills to ensure further shortages are more adequately addressed.

One way to attract more skilled professionals into the industry is for construction companies to consider implementing or increasing existing recruitment budgets. By widening talent pools and engaging freelancers on a more regular basis, companies may be able to alleviate short-term demand. However, to support long-term growth, employers also need to encourage their existing workforce to develop soft skills, such as communication and problem solving, as well as acquiring more industry-specific knowledge and training.

Encouragingly, over 60% of employers in the construction sector already have some kind of skills development system in place, from transferring employees between different departments or duties to offering additional benefits to support and encourage training. These types of programmes will be key to upskilling the current workforce and increasing productivity, and they could also help organisations retain their best employees.

To ensure that upskilling and reskilling initiatives, such as the National Retraining Scheme, meet the needs of the entire workforce, representatives of the construction industry and training providers must collaborate to ensure high-quality and relevant training for management, technical and digital expertise, and soft skills is offered and accessible.

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