Solving construction jobs crisis

Steve Radley, the Construction Industry Training Board’s policy and strategic planning director, warns of a recruitment crisis facing the sector


The recession might be over, but the construction industry is still feeling the effects of what have been a tough few years for the sector.

In short, it is facing a recruitment crisis.

The figures make stark reading. Since 2008, 390,000 workers have left the industry, reluctantly let go by companies struggling to survive. As previous recessions have shown, it’s difficult to rehire employees once they have left. Another 400,000 will reach retirement age in the next five years.

This actual and potential depletion of the workforce is becoming a real issue now the industry is returning to growth. Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) figures show that more than 180,000 new construction jobs will be created in the next five years in the commercial, retail and residential sectors.

To help address staff losses and retirements, and fill the new jobs, an additional 120,000 apprenticeships will be required by 2019 – about 25,000 new starts a year. This is a huge challenge, one that requires action by the government and everyone involved in the industry.

At CITB we are tackling the challenge head on. In 2013, we helped 5,000 young people start a construction apprenticeship in their local community and are currently providing grants of up to £10,250 for any construction employer looking to take on an apprentice.

Our Shared Apprenticeship Schemes are being rolled out across the country. These enable apprentices to complete a full apprenticeship programme with a number of different employers. This spreads the costs for businesses and makes it more likely that longer-term investment in apprenticeships is maintained.

To help address staff losses and retirements, and fill new jobs, an additional 120,000 apprenticeships will be required by 2019 – about 25,000 new starts a year

We have helped the industry develop 30 national skills academies for construction, which provide hands-on training, and have developed procurement guidance, Working together to boost local construction apprenticeships through public procurement, for government departments, agencies and local authorities.

But it’s not enough. More needs to be done.

The government is trying to create a training market where providers are responsive to what employers need. This is welcome, but it must make sure that any new measures make it as simple as possible for companies to invest in training, especially smaller businesses that don’t have the capacity to invest in complex administration.

Apprenticeships are the lifeblood of the construction industry, and the best way of growing a talented and diverse workforce for the future. So getting the recruitment and training model right is vital for the 309,000 companies – the majority of them small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – that make up the industry.

Acting on the recommendations of the Richard Review of Apprenticeships, the government has thrown down a gauntlet to the industry, introducing a fundamental shift in the way apprenticeships are funded and delivered, to give employers more control and access to the quality training their businesses need.

To support this work, CITB is working with the industry to implement the first trailblazer of the government’s apprenticeship reforms and has set up a high-level Apprenticeship Commission to deliver an apprenticeship strategy for the construction sector by the end of the year.

Beyond recruitment, the government’s Industrial Strategy has set ambitious targets for construction to meet by 2025 – 33 per cent lower cost, 50 per cent faster delivery, 50 per cent lower emissions and halving the export trade gap.

Reducing the trade gap is a laudable aim, but construction SMEs, which make up 95 per cent of the sector, tell us that to increase exports they need support to identify foreign markets and overcome export barriers.

If they get this support, SMEs will not only be able to reduce the trade deficit, but will also become resilient to the volatility of economic cycles.

The government is a major customer for the construction industry, whether through big national infrastructure projects or local authority schemes. While it has started to provide companies with more certainty on upcoming infrastructure projects, the government must now provide more detail so businesses can plan the next four or five years ahead.

The industry has a key role to play in its own success, too.

Career advisers are out of touch with what’s happening in the sector and are not promoting careers. Recent research shows that more than 35 per cent of advisers think a career in construction is unattractive, while 82 per cent of teachers don’t believe they have the appropriate knowledge to advise pupils on their career choices.

Construction employers need to visit schools and explain the benefits of a career in the sector. They need to tell youngsters how it’s becoming a highly skilled, rewarding profession that, in many cases, it is extremely well paid and exciting – the building of the Olympic Park and the use of cutting-edge building information modelling are evidence of that.

The industry also plays an important role in tackling climate change through designing and constructing more energy-efficient buildings, developing smart materials and building zero-carbon homes. Many young people are motivated by climate change and, if they choose to work in the construction industry, can help address the challenges it poses.

A high-performing, efficient construction industry has a huge role to play in delivering economic growth. It is in all our interests to ensure that construction, as one of the cornerstones of the UK, delivering £2.84 to the economy for each £1 invested, is given every opportunity to succeed.

We must all work together to make this happen.