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UK construction workloads rise but skills shortage still an issue

Stuart Neilson tells HRNews about addressing the skills shortage and diversity imbalance in the construction industry


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    UK construction workloads on the rise but labour, finance and material shortages are creating issues. That is the headline for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors following publication of their latest report on the construction sector – the UK Construction Monitor Q1 2023. It shows that workloads in the UK’s construction sector improved in the first three months of the year, helped largely by big ticket infrastructure projects, but the skills gap remains a huge issue.

    They quote their Chief Economist, Simon Rubinsohn. He says: ‘The negative mood around development has eased somewhat in recent months with the workload trend stabilising away from infrastructure where the trend remains more positive. However, a key challenge for the sector continues to revolve around labour shortages in general and skills in particular. Unless addressed, this could prove to be a significant drag on the ambitions of the construction industry.’

    Mahvesh Ibrar, the RICS Senior Public Affairs Officer goes further. He says: ‘Whilst the construction sector continues to recover from recent market and economic pressures, the skills shortages within the sector are a continued cause for concern as construction demand outstrips the industry’s capacity.’ He goes on: ‘RICS continues to call on the government to invest in home-grown talent and expand built environment education in schools to develop the next generation of professionals.’
    Data published last year shows the construction industry is facing a shortage of a quarter of a million workers over the next four years according to the Construction Skills Network. Personnel Today reported on it at the time and quoted Tim Balcon, CITB chief executive. He says the construction sector needs to become much more progressive in recruitment. He said: ‘We have to attract and retain those that are under-represented, in particular women and those from ethnic minorities.’ The figures show that women make up 15% of the UK construction industry, but with only 2% working on site. Minority ethnic groups make up 6% of the workforce, a similar proportion to those with disabilities. 

    Of course, we have many clients in this sector, firms which have long recognised this problem. Stuart Neilson has been advising them on ways to help plug the skills gap and improve diversity and he joined me by video-link from the Glasgow office to discuss this:

    Stuart Neilson: “I think it's a massive problem at the moment. We are seeing it across a very wide range of our clients that are operating within the infrastructure sector. I think before we had the pandemic, you know, there was always quite a bit of turnover in terms of the jobs in the infrastructure sector but I think almost all of our clients are reporting that their turnover levels have gone up, so they are losing more people, and part of that might be to do with the pandemic, people retiring, because the age group within the infrastructure that tends to be 40s 50s is predominantly where you've got a lot of the people sitting. So they're leaving, and then there's a real struggle in terms of getting more people in. part of that might be to do with Brexit and so we were left with this kind of situation where businesses in the infrastructure are losing people, and probably at a higher rate than they were before the pandemic, and there is a shortage of skills and the ability to bring people in, and you see that across the wider economy with the number of the vacancies that are in the economy and, unfortunately, infrastructures is very heavily hit by that and at a time, when you know, there are some pretty major infrastructure projects taking place in the UK at the moment.”

    Joe Glavina: “It does seem there is an inherent problem for the sector, Stuart, because it is male dominated, as we know, so the pool of diverse talent to recruit from is a very small one.”

    Stuart Neilson: “Very much so and I think that's one of the massive challenges for the infrastructure sector and I think there is a great desire for more diversity and, of course, diversity in any business is great, from the point of view of bringing in people with slightly different approach to things, you're getting different views, different challenges, that's great for business. With diversity you are also obviously widening the potential applicants that are for any particular role, so you hope to have a broader, bigger pool to fish in. The problem is just, unfortunately, within the infrastructure sector the pool is quite narrow and there are a couple of things which lead to that, I think. If you look, say at those graduates coming out of universities who've maybe done engineering, it might be mechanical engineering, or civil engineering, is still very heavily male dominated. The problem is the candidates leaving school and going into university is very much still attracting boys rather than girls so there's a big problem there and that's a problem that probably needs to be dealt with at the school level, and society level, of encouraging a more diverse intake into the universities doing some of these degree and graduate courses that the infrastructure industry is very interested in. Then even more generally, at the kind of operative level, it's still very much seen as a kind of men's work and not necessarily being that attractive to women. So, I think there's still quite a lot of work to be done in terms of making it an area where it is more attractive to people, both male and female, particularly and also, I would include within that people from ethnic minority backgrounds as well and, to be fair, a lot of our clients are doing a lot of work in that area, but it's a bit of an uphill struggle.”

    Joe Glavina: “One of the points Tim Balcon makes is that it’s important for the sector to show-case the career prospects and lifestyle opportunities available these days and that things are changing.”

    Stuart Neilson: “Absolutely, and we've got a number of clients who are doing a lot of work in that space, very much focusing on the kind of life-long learning and prospects that people have. So, you know, a lot of talk about sort of apprenticeship programmes and training programmes, but a lot of the bigger infrastructure companies are spending a lot of time and resource in making sure that they've got really good programmes in place to encourage people to come into the business and to the industry and then to look after them throughout the lifetime of their career and give them the opportunities to reskill. I think particularly with the generation now that is coming into the workplace one of the key things that they place a lot of value on is the fact that the employer will provide them with opportunities to train, to reskill, to advance their career, and that there will be options for them to do different things in a variety of different ways within the workplace. So, they're not looking at just coming into our workplace and only doing a job for the next 20, 30 years, they they're looking for a much greater opportunity around how their career might progress and change over that period of time.”

    Joe Glavina: “You work closely with clients in this sector, Stuart. What are they saying to you?”

    Stuart Neilson: “So a lot of clients ask is where can we make the difference? We've got the skill shortage problem, we've got diversity inclusion as an issue, how do we address that from a practical point of view? I think there are a number of key steps that, obviously, our clients are taking, and can take. To some limited extent they can do their bit to try and influence getting a more diverse intake to the universities and onto graduate programmes, through outreach programmes, getting in touch with schools and colleges and that type of thing, and so there's a bit of that happening. I think in terms of their own policies and how those are structured within the workplace, there's a lot more emphasis on trying to make them more attractive, and family-friendly and that applies both to men and women in the workplace today. So, things like family leave, maternity leave, parental leave, are all things that employers are having to look at very closely and perhaps make them more generous. I think culture is a massive thing. Culture on, particularly, infrastructure sites has always been seen as being quite a macho, male-orientated culture, and I think with more technology coming in, though, as well, they need to move away from some of that and I think businesses are recognising it. So, they're putting in place a lot of training programmes trying to, you know, just to, I guess, polish off the edges sometimes in some of these workplaces and make them a little bit more user-friendly for people from more diverse backgrounds is a key thing around culture. Finally, I’d say probably because of the impact of the pandemic and remote working return to work has been quite a big issue and, again, I think we're seeing a lot of businesses adapting how they approach that. I think if we'd had the pandemic 10 or 15 years ago, I think on the return it would have been right everyone back in the office back, back onto the sites full time, no quibbling about that. Nowadays, I think we're thinking right, okay, we need to make this more attractive, we need to have flexible working, so we're seeing a lot of the industry moving to more like 60%, 70% requirement to be on site or in the office. That does depend on individual circumstances, but much more flexibility I think, which I think is an encouraging thing and will help to get more diverse workforce.”

    That report by the Construction Skills Network was published last June and looks ahead to what the industry needs to be doing over the next 5 years. It’s called ‘The skills construction needs’ and we have put a link to it in the transcript of this programme. We’ve also included a link the RICS press release.

    - Link to RICs press release 
    - Link to CSN report – ‘The Skills Construction Needs’

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