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Insight | Tackling Skills Shortages in the Industry

Recent statistics show that three quarters of UK businesses are impacted by skills shortages. The effects of this has been decimating for the UK economy, costing businesses a reported £6.3 billion per year in temporary staff and training.

Construction is one of the most heavily impacted sectors with a hefty 85% of managers saying that they’re struggling to find suitable candidates to fill roles.

The reasons for this are manifold and are particularly problematic during current housebuilding demand. Some researchers cite an ageing workforce, tighter Brexit immigration laws, and even prevailing cultural stereotypes of the industry.

What’s clear is that the technology-led construction industry today is very different to that of yesteryear. We explore the reasons for these gaping skills shortages and explore what businesses can do to tackle this.

Why is There a Skills Shortage?

A skills shortage can have repercussions for businesses, meaning that companies don’t complete work on time or within budget. Unfortunately, this can result in lower productivity and widespread delays around the country. Skills shortages would appear to be due to a combination of factors:

An Ageing Workforce

One common explanation is that the industry grapples with an ageing workforce. According to the CIPD, there are more than 1.2 million workers over the age of 65. This figure is growing and will continue to do so as UK people of pension age outweigh those under 16 for the first time.

As workers age, they’ll likely become more susceptible to health conditions and physical injury and may not be able to perform tasks as efficiently as their younger selves which increases the likelihood of absenteeism which is often associated with the industry.

This is increasingly apposite in a country with an ageing population and ever-increasing state pension age.

Despite the proliferation of apprenticeships, young people today aren’t drawn to the same manual trades as their forebearers with many choosing degree or college courses ahead of traditional tradesperson roles. Presently, 22% of the construction workforce is over 50 with 15% of workers in their sixties.

Such a schism leaves essential skills gaps in the workforce as crucial knowledge will be lost when older employees retire and the volume of younger workers needed to replace is not readily available.

Rejuvenating the Public Image

Perceived cultural stereotypes may play a part in the slow uptake amongst young people. For instance, the idea that construction is a typically male-dominated ‘bloke’s bloke’ arena which is out of touch with modern sensibilities.

For instance, a survey from 2019 found that 72% of female construction workers had been subject to some form of gender discrimination while 41% reported receiving inappropriate comments from male colleagues.

Construction bosses can make sites more female-friendly by taking tangible steps to promote fair representation of women in construction by championing successful women role models, tackle gender discrimination through stricter harassment policies, and update hygiene and toilet facilities to accommodate women.

As well as this problematic public image, construction also has a reputation for technological Luddism which is again out of sync with those who are introduced to technology pretty much from birth.

Rejuvenating this wider reputation could be key to addressing this. Savvy, forward-thinking businesses will have digitised their processes from advanced job reporting to van leasing. This creates a web of design and technology roles which may appeal more to younger, tech-literate professionals than images of cold construction sites and muddy boots.

Closing this perception gap could ultimately help to close the skills gap in turn.

Does Brexit Have an Effect?

In short, yes. The cessation of EU freedom-of-movement laws has made it increasingly difficult for foreign workers to attain visas. Prior to Brexit, around 40% of all construction workers in the UK came from other EU countries, now a total of 70 points is required under the current points-based system.

Bureaucracy has also become complicated for employers as they may have to provide proof of a genuine vacancy.

How Can Businesses Tackle This?

The future of the construction industry is hotly debated but one thing for certain is that businesses and government needs to act fast – the sector is worth £61 billion to the UK economy.

One solution could be to make the industry more desirable to younger candidates. Businesses should take the chance to educate potential employees about the wealth of opportunities available through modernising construction techniques.

Apprenticeships are also a great way to deliver this, providing reliable employment into trade from school.

Post Brexit, a revision of the points-based immigration system should take into account the particular needs of key sectors such as construction and housebuilding. Currently, the rights of skilled workers are prioritised, however, this could be relaxed to include other essential unskilled workers such as drivers.

Finally, businesses should advertise the fiscal benefits of working within such a sector. Construction remains one of the highest-paying industries in the UK with an average salary of £36,977 and enormous opportunities for progression. This should be a chief concern for young people amidst current cost-of-living anxieties.

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