Managing the construction skills shortage

26 September 2017

Skilled worker numbers are dwindling, and with Brexit looming, decisive action is needed to attract the brightest recruits.

Just like every other industry, construction faces plenty of challenges. But UK Plc’s £500 billion to-do list still reads like a contractor’s dream come true: HS2, Crossrail, Hinkley Point C, the one million new homes planned by the government to ease the housing crisis.

Up to 230,000 construction jobs could be created during the next five years, says the Construction Industry Training Board. The figure is more like 700,000, according to the Farmer Review, written for the Construction Leadership Council.

But where are the skilled staff to fill these jobs? Numbers are on the decline and construction firms are struggling to recruit the people they need.

Causes for the skills shortage are multi-faceted. The workforce is ageing, with staff aged 60 plus increasing, as workers aged 30 and under decrease according to the Chartered Institute of Building. Snobbery and out-dated perceptions are discouraging new entrants. “Construction suffers from a fundamental image problem. Many view it as a ‘4D industry’: dirty, dangerous, demeaning and depressing,” according to the Talent Scale report, from engineering consultancy, Arcadis. 

And it’s eroding a worker base still struggling to recover from the 2007 recession (400,000 jobs lost) and subsequent slump in skills training.

With Brexit teeing up the knockout punch, EU worker drain could be anything from 176,500 according to RICS to 214,000 with a harder Brexit according to Arcadis.

The outlook is bleak. Up to 27,000 projects could go unfulfilled, says the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. 

Risk implications abound, too. As I noted several months ago, a shortage of labour could result in a more transitory, less skilled workforce. This could affect safety and quality, as it’s more challenging to bring short-term workers into a company’s safety culture and training programmes. 

Skilled, motivated workers might be at a premium, but savvy employers are devising new strategies to attract them. 

Here, construction bodies and experts suggest how to fill the skills gap: 

What to do in the short and medium term

Recruit from industries outside construction - seek workers with transferable skills in other sectors and those looking to return to work, suggests industry report Talent Scale, pointing out that such a move could ‘plug a gap’ while training and educational investment are being implemented

  • Optimise ageing workers - play to older workers’ strengths by embracing new technologies and using manufacturing methods that are less physically demanding, says the Future of Construction report, curated by the University of Waterloo. Consider pre-fabrication, increasing automation and human-robot collaboration 
  • Reduce waste and duplication - as an industry, construction needs to collaborate on eliminating wasted labour and time across the supply chain. Reducing duplication and enabling efficiency saves contractors time and money too
  • Increase productivity - devise more efficient working methods by moving highly skilled, but ageing, workers into supervisory roles. This could stem the industry talent drain, and encourage the transfer of skills and knowledge.

How to play it long term

  • Win millennials’ hearts and minds - changing perceptions is the key to recruiting young people. “Most construction companies are characterised by a conservative, ‘fear of failure’ corporate culture,” asserts the Future of Construction report, which cites innovators like Elon Musk as setting out a bold vision, unencumbered by tradition. “Culture is a talent magnet,” says the report. “Construction companies need … a corporate culture that challenges the status quo and embraces innovation”
  • Offer quality apprenticeships, and exciting training / development packages - “Target bright school leavers who would rather learn on the job than run up large university debts,” says the Construction Youth Trust, which urges firms to make young people more aware of the roles and opportunities open to them
  • Embrace diversity - In order to thrive, construction needs more women, minority ethnic workers, and LGBT staff, says the Institute of Civil Engineers: “The argument is simple … we must engage the entire talent pool. We can’t afford to exclude at least 50% of candidates.” A recent study called The Mix That Matters, by Boston Consulting Group found a clear link between workforce diversity and innovation. Yet another reason to look beyond the traditional “pale and male” recruitment demographic
  • Commit to speedier payments - The construction industry has a bad reputation for late payment. This can prevent firms from investing in their workforce and also contributes to employment uncertainty; cash flow is a key factor in insolvencies. Creating more stable supply chains will improve recruitment into the sector.

With intelligent planning, the skills gap can be bridged. Construction insurance brokers are limited in the part they can play. However, we can provide assistance with the provision of flexible benefits, and other measures to create an attractive work environment, including professional development and training. We can also help with risk and insurance-based content focused on construction industry issues to develop a more risk-aware workforce.With intelligent planning, the skills gap can be bridged. Construction insurance brokers are limited in the part they can play. However, we can provide assistance with the provision of flexible benefits, and other measures to create an attractive work environment, including professional development and training. We can also help with risk and insurance-based content focused on construction industry issues to develop a more risk-aware workforce.

For further information please contact Dave Cahill, Business Development Leader on +44 (0)20 7558 3482 or email dave_cahill@jltgroup.com

contact Dave Cahill
Senior Partner, Construction