Addressing the skills gap

By Carine Guenand, Head of Sustainability for NAWIC London & South East Region
Design Manager for Skanska UK

I attended CIRIA’s recent event ‘Addressing the Skills Gap’ at their offices in Barbican on 6 July 2016. The event presented the issues around the skills gap as described in recent surveys and also explored the industry’s perspective on how these issues can be best addressed.

At the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) we are particularly interested in this topic as we believe that having a more inclusive workforce, particularly with more women, is one of the ways to reduce this gap.

The issue of the skills gap in construction has been around for some time now. The topic has been discussed over and over again, yet we are still facing a real issue with meeting the demand for a skilled workforce.

The numbers are worrying to say the least:
  • 182,000 construction jobs to be filled by 2018 and only 7,280 completed apprenticeships in 2013, only 2% more in 2014.
  • Approximately one in five workers are approaching retirement age and 26% are between 45 and 55.
  • The sector needs bricklayers, electricians, construction managers, quantity surveyors etc.
  • Recent surveys indicate that 45% of built environment students are actively considering going into other careers, notably banking, insurance, property management and teaching. Why such a malaise with construction?
  • In London and the South East specifically, 20% more workers will be needed to meet the existing pipeline demand in 2014-2017 than was needed in 2013 and a 51% increase in training provision is required to plug the gap of over 14,800 trainees we need. Why so few training opportunities?

So is the UK construction industry skills shortage this bad? And have we been focusing for too long on training demand instead of supply? The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) thinks so, as demonstrated  with their latest reports presented at the roundtable, all of which are openly available online.  

Carole Stanfield from UKCES (UK Commission for Employment and Skills) then put construction into context with other industries. UKCES is an industry-led government body which provides guidance on skills and employment issues in the UK. 

So is the construction industry’s problem particularly bad or similar to other industries?
UKCES research shows a higher than average skills shortage in construction with 34% of vacancies overall that cannot be filled. The construction industry offers lower training levels than other sectors; however there is a higher amount spent per trainee. Managers are trained less than any other staff and even offsite construction offers poor qualification and skill deficiencies. 

It was refreshing to hear the point of view of Linda Clarke from Westminster University, saying that the UK construction industry relies on poaching. It’s undeniable that when we can’t find the workforce we need, we get it from elsewhere. There is also a decline in construction apprenticeships in the UK: 10,308 in 2006 and only 3,000 in 2015. 

Linda made some excellent points linking how we can bridge the skills gap through gender equity with promoting low energy construction (LEC).They require the same things: a high standard of vocational training, more direct employment and collaboration, more inclusive recruitment and working practices and for us to be all more vigilant and monitor the project closely. In fact these are important and cross-cutting issues for employment and skills in construction that were raised by many at the roundtable.

Mace then presented their effort to bridge the skills gap. They have created the Mace Foundation which is a UK registered charity working to enhance and support disadvantaged people and communities in focusing on education, employment, communities and health and wellbeing.

The Berkeley Group discussed the issues around lack of housing stock. We need 220,000 new homes every year but only 141,000 are built at present. Add to this an aging population, with many professionals retiring in the next 10 years. Who is going to build those houses and do we currently have the skills to do so?

Berkeley set out REACH, an apprenticeship programme with a clear commitment to train and provide vocational training to 1500 people across their supply chain (2016 to 2018) to support the training and skills of future housebuilders. 

I was interested to hear how infrastructure projects such as Crossrail address the skills gap. Crossrail employ 10,000 workers, and presented the lessons they have learnt under ‘Talent and Resources’ during the planning, design and construction of a major infrastructure project. They found that training is good but it is not sufficient on its own, job guarantee training is what really makes a difference. This is not surprising, what is the point of training if there are no prospects at the end?

Lastly, we were introduced to SkillsPlanner, a research and development project with 1.3m of Innovate UK funding. The project aims to collect data on skill supply and demand from a number of sources and provide this information using geospatial visualisation. To put it simply, it is a live and user-friendly platform that allows employers and other stakeholders to share information. 

We all agree that the skills gap won’t get resolved overnight and the event provided for different perspectives on the issues at stake and the ways to tackle them from using technology to individual initiatives by large projects and contractors. These are many steps in the right direction and overall we need to be more inclusive, make our industry more attractive to all, provide for better working environments and provide adequate vocational training and the relevant work experience on projects. 

Find out more about CIRIA's forthcoming events.