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Addressing the construction skills shortage: why we need action now

There can certainly be no doubt that construction has long-suffered the challenge of a shrinking talent pool. In fact, at the beginning of the year, a number of leading industry bodies called for combined action from the government and construction firms themselves to address the severe shortage of available headcount that’s long been noted. The list of skills-short roles is extensive and looks set to increase as a growing number of professionals across multiple disciplines head towards retirement.

And with Brexit uncertainty exacerbating the issue – with the potential for firms to lose a proportion of their talent pool – there’s no doubt that the resource situation across construction is reaching tipping point. So, what is the true extent of the skills shortage and how can it be addressed? Rob Enright, Divisional Manager of Rail at Samuel Knight International, discusses the challenges.

The financial impact of talent shortages

Resources – or the lack thereof – can have a detrimental impact on project success, budgets and, ultimately, profitability. In fact, there’s an array of on-going plans that are facing financial burdens due to the inability to source the required skills. It’s well documented, for example, that the many delays to HS2 are caused, in part at least, by the lack of resources to deliver the project and the subsequent increase in costs as more contractors are being used than expected.

Research cited in the government’s Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy (TISS) further estimates that a lack of investment in talent will cost the industry over £300M by 2024, and could escalate to over £1Bn ten years later. And that’s just for transport and rail.

Clearly there’s a monetary incentive for the government and employers in construction to seek a solution to the on-going challenge of creating a readily available skilled workforce. So, what steps can, and indeed should, be taken.

Engaging with the future generation

There’s no doubt that improvements to, and the wider availability of, apprenticeship schemes will have a long-term impact on the industry. However, I would argue that we need to go further back in our emerging talent attraction strategies than immediate school leavers if we are to make a sustainable difference to our talent pools.

I’m sure many will agree that much of the battle when convincing younger generations to seek employment in construction stems from the image of the industry as labour intensive, with few individuals outside of construction aware of the many opportunities for people with all interests, including technology and AI. This incorrect perception will often prevent those considering their career choice from thinking of construction – and this absolutely needs to be addressed.

There’s a vast array of options for bright young minds seeking to make their mark and even make a difference in their career, we just need to let them know it. By working with schools to help provide informed guidance on the benefits of seeking employment in construction, we’ll undoubtedly see an uptick in those taking up the apprenticeship route and training for a future in the industry.

Upskilling the workforce

Perhaps one opportunity to improve the skills situation in construction that is often over-looked is the chance to upskill those already employed in the field. It’s no secret that tech and digital skills are highly sought after across the industry (and indeed across all sectors in general). While there’s absolutely a need to attract more from this background into construction, a more immediate solution could be to identify where existing resources can be trained to absorb some of this role.

The benefits of such an approach go beyond the immediate impact on headcount as well. By opening up wider development opportunities to existing staff, employers will create a more engaged workforce which often has a direct link to a drop in employee turnover.

Diversifying the workforce

There’s no doubt that for skills short industries, creating a diverse workforce must be a priority – after all, if your talent pool is already limited, alienating a segment of the population will exacerbate the situation. Having so few females in construction, then, is an issue that needs addressing with some urgency.

There have certainly been steps taken to encourage more females into construction as a growing number of employers recognise both the value of tapping in to this talent pool and the dire need to widen the net in the hunt for staff. However, while this is encouraging, we can’t overlook the fact that existing cultures are likely driving women out of the industry before they’ve had chance to fully embed themselves in a role.

That’s not to say that anyone is at fault, it’s a simple side-effect of the current gender imbalance. A firm that is male-dominated will have a culture and environment that is very much suited to this demographic. Unless this is addressed, women entering the workforce or even seeking opportunities at such a company will likely find it unappealing.

There’s no easy solution to the skills shortage in construction and it’s certainly going to take a lot of hard work and commitment from employers and the government if we’re to finally stamp out this challenge. But with the right steps in place, improvements can be made.

Rob Enright, is Divisional Manager of Rail at Samuel Knight International

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