The skills shortage is now a desperate issue that needs an immediate solution…
By Jon Enever
In October 2016, a new industry report was published which concluded that the construction sector must ‘modernise or die’.
‘The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model’ was commissioned in February 2016 by the Construction Leadership Council at the request of the government. The report suggests that the UK’s construction industry faces ‘inexorable decline’ unless longstanding problems are addressed. One cannot but agree with his startling conclusions.
The construction workforce is shrinking. Each year we see more people leave the industry compared to those who join it, placing increasing constraints on its capacity to build. We will begin to discover the full extent of what this means when workers from the EU, who up until now have partially helped fill the gap, start to return home as they see their wage packets affected by the drop in the value of sterling, while their own domestic markets start to recover.
The four “H’s” touted as the big ticket construction growth areas are all reliant on skilled labour t make them happen – namely Hinkley, HS2, Housing and Heathrow. Some are long term, others are being built now and the Federation of Masterbuilders survey from the end of last year paints a grim picture. Almost half of construction SMEs report difficulties hiring roofers, and the shortage of electricians and plasterers is at its highest point for four years against the growing demand of an SME sector that has experienced 15 consecutive quarters of growth.
Unfortunately there is little incentive for contractors to invest in long-term training when they are increasingly reliant on a fractured supply chain and the self-employed. This skills gap has the potential to impact the industry just as negatively. We are starting to see growth in wage inflation and this is not going to decrease as the labour force declines – with an expected shortfall of 400,000 tradespeople by 2020, as huge numbers leave the industry through retirement.
Therefore, employers have welcomed Chancellor Philip Hammond’s planned £500 million-a-year boost to technical education and the launch of a new ‘T-level’ qualification, but warned the policy will not address short term skills shortages.
The ‘T-levels’ are aimed at providing technical training for 16-19-year-olds in sectors including construction and engineering, with the objective of trying to ensure that academic and technical education are equally valued.
The government plans to ramp up training via technical routes to 900 hours and slash the 13,000 or so technical courses currently available down to just 15 core areas. Technical students will also have access to student loans, like those choosing university. This is not however a quick fix and new courses would not be introduced until 2019.
The situation is not assisted by the poor methods used to teach such skills. The union Unite recently uncovered figures which it said suggested that thousands of young people are being placed on so-called “dead-end” classroom-based construction courses. Under a Freedom of Information request, Unite found that while 192,500 young people began a classroom based construction course in 2015/16, a rise of 14% on the previous year, only 21,460 people began a construction apprenticeship.
It is clear that considerable work needs to be done to show today’s school leavers that there is so much more to our industry. Many construction firms – both large and SME – are also working hard to demonstrate that good training in skilled professions can guarantee future employment and good prospects. These kinds of initiatives, coupled with the introduction of the government’s programmes, may yet yield the results we so desperately need to see but it will all take time. Time we simply do not have.