When Does a Skills Shortage Become a Skills Crisis?

The question posed by the heading is one that is troubling organisations across the construction sector. The short answer is that it becomes a crisis only when we let it.
Certainly, there are shortages of skilled people at all levels. For example, over 20% of civil engineers are set to retire in the next 15 years. The people entering the profession are not sufficient to fill that gap. A study led by Terry Morgan, Chairman of Crossrail identified that over 14,400 people were needed to fill engineering and technical roles in the road and rail sectors; 7,950 were needed for construction management; and 2,700 more people had to be found for customer and project leadership roles.

Plans announced in the Budget for additional infrastructure investment and the target of building 300,000 new homes per year by 2025 will add further pressures. Add to this the very real possibility of a skills exodus in the wake of Brexit and you certainly have the ingredients for a fully fledged crisis. But we can’t allow a potential crisis to become the reality.

History tells us that nobody will solve the problem for us. The industry needs to be creative. We need to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. We also need to invest; whether that’s setting up skills academies, taking on more apprentices or creating new pathways for recruitment and development of our people.

New Skills

We need to fully understand how innovation offers potential solutions on the one hand, and further challenges on the other.

The industry we are recruiting for will demand new skills. This will include disciplines such as data management and analysis, digital design, virtual and augmented reality, change and behavioural management, sustainable development and, potentially, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

We won’t win by doing what we’ve always done. New methods will have to be adopted that improve productivity and performance; which is even more reason to recruit from outside our traditional base.

Selling the benefits of a career in construction means wholehearted engagement with the STEM Ambassadors programme, and high quality work experience opportunities for all ages that deliver a meaningful and rewarding experience.

We also have to devise and support diverse routes into senior professional roles for young people put off by tuition fees, rather than rely on graduate recruitment.

And here’s a real challenge for you: if we could find ways to foster collaboration rather than competition for talent throughout the delivery chain, we would open opportunities for graduates and trainees to develop a wider set of skills and experiences. Not easy to deliver, but think of the possibilities.

Existing Skills

For existing skill sets, increasing efforts are being made to encourage people to return to the industry. Apprenticeship places and skills academies are growing (though not fast enough). And innovative programmes to welcome more women, minorities, ex service people and ex offenders into the industry are being developed. All of these efforts need to be accelerated.

Supportive Procurement

The way projects and frameworks are tendered and awarded must reflect the imperative to use projects of all sizes to boost apprenticeships and encourage new people into the industry.

There should also be greater emphasis and value placed on innovation and adopting new methods. The industry can’t afford to be obsessed with traditional ways of doing things that rely entirely on traditional skills.

Innovation will harness a broader range of skills and improve productivity – without it we certainly will have a crisis. The Budget announcement that government departments, including transport, will have a presumption in favour of offsite construction by 2019 hopefully points the way.

There is much being done, and much more that needs to be done. But out of the challenge the UK construction sector has an opportunity to set the pace. We can become a global leader in using advanced technology and skills to deliver exceptional value, productivity and performance. This glass is definitely half full!

The FIR Industry Steering Group is leading the development of the FIR Toolkit- free materials that are available for the industry to help achieve FIR across the industry, and to help change attitudes in the workplace. View the toolkit here

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