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UK construction sector faced with a talent ticking time bomb



In December last year, The Federation of Master Builders’ (FMB) State of Trade Report revealed that the total employment net balance in the UK construction sector fell by 6% points from +10 in Q3 to +4 in Q4. Of those surveyed, only 21% of firms predicted rising staffing levels in the coming quarter and 14% actually forecast employment cuts.

When coupled with figures predicting a 1.7% growth in construction output levels over the next five years, the stats begin to paint a worrying picture of the critical shortage of skills facing the construction industry in the immediate future. In order to tackle the problem head on, trade organisations must take responsibility for attracting and training more construction professionals – and must do so fast…

Skills and demand

As one of the leading drivers of the British economy – generating £90Bn annually (6.7% of GDP) – the construction sector is responsible for employing over 2.93 million professionals in the UK, and contributes considerably to the UK’s total output.

With this output expected to rise (thanks to increased investments from both government and private organisations in, for example, housing and infrastructure projects) the demand for skilled construction professionals will follow suit.

However, the situation at present will only serve to widen the gap between the number of skilled professionals required to meet objectives and the number of qualified candidates actually available in the market. Failure to meet this demand poses an issue for employers and recruiters alike.

Acknowledging the talent gap

Unfortunately the UK’s construction skills gap isn’t a new problem. The financial crisis of 2008 sparked a reluctance in banks to grant loans for construction projects, and resulted in many skilled tradesmen and construction professionals leaving the industry, graduate and apprenticeship programmes being cut, and very little hiring for the following years.

This gap in job opportunities, the lack of comprehensive apprenticeships across the industry and a failure to encourage candidates into construction careers all contributed to the shortage of ‘young talent’ (those with five to eight years’ experience) we feel in the sector today.

The situation is set to worsen over the next five years, as a large proportion of qualified professionals and tradesmen are now approaching retirement age – 22% over 50, and 15% in their 60s. As these professionals prepare to leave the industry (with very few of them having trained apprentices) replenishing their experience and bridging the talent gap is now of upmost importance. But how?

Bridging the talent gap

In recent years, the lack of apprenticeship opportunities and reluctance of young talent to join the industry has resulted in fewer fully qualified individuals in the talent pool. The solution here (although not ideal) has been for construction jobs to be simplified – for example, some carpenters only do first fix or second fix work. While this narrows the skills gap it has resulted in construction becoming a less attractive vocation for potential industry entrants.

Foreign labour has also proven an effective way for the UK to fill its talent gap – yet amid the current climate of uncertainty surrounding Brexit, establishing the long-term viability of this as a solution could prove tricky. Should foreign labour laws change in the future, there is no guarantee that the UK could continue to make use of this essential resource so easily.

Instead some companies are now re-establishing apprenticeship schemes to take advantage of the newly implemented Apprenticeship Levy. Though not able to solve the skills gap on its own, apprenticeships that run theory training alongside practical experience will quickly mark a positive step forward for home-grown talent in the UK.

Constructing a resolution

With increased investment in residential and infrastructure projects across the country, the demand for skilled construction professionals will continue to grow. Not only does this make the sector a very attractive one for individuals seeking a long term career that is less susceptible to be replaced by technology, but a lucrative one in which the majority of experienced individuals will earn well above the average UK salary.

By promoting the positives of this essential industry to the next generation of UK workers, and by ensuring organisations, the Government, schools and businesses are providing the training opportunities needed by young talent, the construction industry can begin to build the bridges it needs in order to overcome the skills shortage.

By Mark Beacom, Operating Director at Michael Page Property & Construction
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