Features - Business

Fight or flight: Working Around the Skills Shortage During the Pandemic

Adrian Attwood, Executive Director at DBR (London) Limited discusses the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted on the UK skills shortage and how the construction industry can cope

The skills shortage in the construction industry has long been highlighted as a major problem. This is due to a number of factors, including: an ageing workforce, lack of appeal to school leavers and recruitment diversity, and inadequate funding for apprenticeships. Further, with Brexit due to come into full effect by the end of the year, the number of EU nationals working in construction will dramatically decrease, causing the construction industry to lose a quarter of its workforce.

These issues have only intensified as a result of the pandemic. The number of workers on site and in the office are reduced, staff have been furloughed and existing apprenticeships paused.

As new restrictions are implemented to curb a second wave of the virus, the construction industry must make some crucial decisions to navigate a second lockdown. Increased government support and a focus on promoting careers in construction will help to close the skills gap, and while it won’t be simple, it’s something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

A not-so-sudden shortage

The UK skills shortage is not a new issue. Ever since the financial crash in 2008, when a staggering 400,000 construction jobs were lost, the number of skilled workers in the industry has decreased.

Inadequate Government funding is a persistent challenge. Couple this with the time it takes to train new workers in a variety of complex roles, and the desire to work in this industry in the first place, it’s easy to see why we have a recruitment issue.

A number of businesses have publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s apprenticeship scheme, highlighting a system confusing for employers. Many companies have found themselves unable to transfer unused levy funds to smaller firms, and those that do receive the funds are not permitted to use them to cover the administrative costs of hiring apprentices.

However, even if everything goes to plan, once an apprenticeship is funded, there are other things to consider. Training craftspeople for a large project takes a minimum of three years, so advanced planning and investment by all parties involved is required. It’s therefore essential that new craftspeople, of all ages, are nurtured from the start, and school leavers are introduced to the construction industry at career fairs and throughout their education. This can be done virtually during the pandemic and via socially distanced site visits once deemed safe by the Government.

Before the pandemic, the DBR team frequently visited schools and arranged educational trips for students to the various landmarks and historic buildings we have helped to restore. We’ve seen a growing interest among young people in both the crafts and more office-based jobs, who are learning that the construction industry covers a broad range of projects and occupations. So, while apprenticeships may be on hold, there are still opportunities to recruit the next generation of construction professionals.

Changing society’s perspective

While construction businesses needs to engage with the education system, presenting an industry with a rewarding career path, school teachers also have a duty to encourage young people to consider working in an often overlooked sector.

Society has conditioned educators and parents alike to regard construction as a profession which lacks prestige, when in reality it’s just the opposite. The skills required at every level, from on-site building and restoration work to project management, can take years to master. It’s also important to note that a career in construction requires quick and creative thinking, good knowledge of history and design, and excellent people skills.

However, with the recent GCSE and A-level debacle, and the amount of focus placed on a grading algorithm that was so incredibly flawed, the country also needs to open its eyes to other ways of learning, such as vocational education. This can go hand in hand with a university degree, some higher education courses accept vocational qualifications, or be undertaken by school leavers who wish to pursue a career directly after their training.

Vocational education opens many doors, and working in the construction industry allows people to change the world around them and leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

Looking towards the future

As the skills shortage remains an issue in the UK, we need to find a solution, and soon, otherwise we’ll face major problems, not only in heritage construction but the whole sector. With the pandemic an added complication, it’s important to think positively and creatively about how the industry can cope, and when possible, thrive.

This can be done by virtually teaching young people new skills and holding socially distanced training sessions and workshops with employees, taking advantage of emptier sites when these locations are closed to the general public and maintaining regular communication with all members of staff to ensure they remain in a healthy state of mind.

There are also signs the government is starting to take note and change its perspective. It is now making it easier for business to take on apprentices, offering grants to businesses for hiring, retaining and training over the next six months. Announced in July by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, this £1,500 – £2,000 ‘bonus’ for companies upskilling the next generation, should be seen as a good incentive for the sector, and a step in the right direction. However, there is still some way to go, only time will tell if the Treasury’s investment has paid off.

With winter around the corner and the increased risk it’s due to bring, the future may look bleak. However, as an industry and as a nation, we have faced crises before, and if anything the construction industry is more prepared than most to handle whatever comes its way.

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