With an ageing workforce, a depleting pipline of aspiring workers, and the ‘B’ word on the horizon, the skills crisis facing the construction industry looks set to worsen over the next decade.
Contributing almost £90 billion annually to the UK economy, the construction sector employs about 10% of the UK workforce.
These figures may sound impressive, but the industry was far stronger prior to the 2008 recession. 400,000 construction workers left their jobs during the economic downturn and few of them returned. As if that challenge wasn’t enough, the industry now faces another.
With 22% of construction employees over 50, and 15% of them over 60, the rate of retirement in the sector is bound to suddenly increase in the nearby future. This issue would be countered if young people were skilled and eager to fill vacancies, but they simply aren’t.
Government research supports the theory that the construction sector has a major image problem. The industry scored an average of only 4.2 out of 10 in a poll taken by 14-19 year olds, and only 5.6 when the same survey was taken by career advisors.
From laying bricks to managing multi-million pound commercial developments, earning capacities are high and career progression is promising but these facts aren’t effectively communicated to students.
Talented youngsters repeatedly escape the industry because of the simple principle that other sectors make themselves more appealing. If any progress is to be made, the government and businesses must invest in a construction industry makeover.
Fears of the impending construction skills crisis have been fuelled by uncertainty over Brexit.
12% of the British construction workforce is of non-UK origin. The majority of these workers are from EU countries including Poland, Romania and Lithuania.
The prospect of Brexit legislation restricting this flow of EU construction employees has the industry panicking. They cannot afford to miss out on, or lose, skilled individuals.
Brian Barry, Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has warned that Brexit must ‘ensure that the new system of immigration is responsive to the needs of industry’.
‘It is now the Government’s responsibility to ensure that the free-flowing tap of migrant workers from Europe is not turned off’, Mr Barry continues.
In a letter to David Davis, the Brexit Minister, groups representing the construction industry expressed their concerns over a labour shortage.
‘We are in the grip of our worst construction skills crisis in almost 20 years, there is a real concern within our industry that if access to a skilled workforce is further restricted Britain could stop building.’
Despite concerns regarding Brexit, the overriding opinion is that we must be able to rely on Brits to sustain the construction industry.
Mark Farmer, the author of a bold Government report on the topic, proposes that the industry needs to move with the times. He suggests a tilt towards ‘digital engineering’ to create ‘a more positive image’, making construction something that appeals to youngsters.
In the words of country singer Alan Jackson, ‘there’s nothing wrong with a hardhat and a hammer’ – well, try telling that to stubborn millennials.