Why construction desperately needs to diversify

The UK construction industry must attract young workers from diverse backgrounds if it’s to help meet government ambitions in housebuilding and net zero
construction workers standing on edge of building

The construction industry needs more young workers – and fast. To meet the challenge, it not only must promote itself more effectively, but also change its image. 

The sector is key to supporting key UK aspirations for the coming years, like building new housing and moving to net zero by 2050. However, it faces longstanding recruitment challenges. 

The government and private sector are proposing high levels of infrastructure investment, which are likely to result in output growing at an average rate of 4.4% between 2021 and 2025. To service such growth, the construction sector will need to hire an extra 43,000 workers per year. That’s on top of the usual figure needed to maintain the status quo, taking the total size of the workforce to 2.84 million, according to the Construction Skills Network 2021 report from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). 

However, this ambitious target comes at a time of worsening skills shortages and intense competition across all areas of the economy, a situation that is causing wage inflation, among other challenges. 

To make matters worse, the number of workers lost to the industry due both to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic was very significant, says Marcus Bennett, the CITB’s head of industry analysis and forecasting. He fears the true gap in supply could now be even larger than indicated by last year’s report.

For example, as many as 25,000 migrant workers have returned home over the last couple of years at the same time as the traditional talent pool of young skilled workers from the EU is dwindling, meaning the departing workers aren’t being replaced.

Domestic shortfall

The industry has lost domestic workers, too. “Losing skilled European workers has had an impact, but construction also has a lot of self-employed and sole traders and during the pandemic, the furlough scheme didn’t necessarily protect their incomes,” says Rosie Gloster, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. 

There are stories of workers migrating to other sectors, included lorry driving, where demand for skills is high. Early retirement is another route out. 

All of this means that while demand for construction skills is greater than ever, 223,000 workers have quit the sector since the summer of 2019, according to research by the Construction Products Association.

There’s a big divide between what happens on the inside and the perceptions of those on the outside

To make matters worse, nearly half of such leavers were experienced personnel in the industry’s core 45-55 age bracket, which accounts for a huge 35% of the total workforce. That’s according to a blog post by Oscar Watkins, head of research for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank. By way of contrast, a mere 20% are aged below 30.

Even more worryingly, the IPPR’s February 2021 Skills for a Green Recovery report indicated that over the next 15 years, up to 750,000 UK construction workers are expected to either retire or will be about to retire, a situation that it believes “threatens to undermine the government’s plans”.

Even newer and potentially ‘sexier’ areas like renewable energy – where a positive social purpose might be expected to appeal to younger people – are not immune. Here, under-30s account for a mere 13% of the total labour pool, according to the Engineering Construction Industry (ECI) Training Board’s Workforce Census 2021, with the figure rising to only 15% across the wider industry.

Unravelling complexity

Suzannah Nichol is chief executive of industry body Build UK. She thinks a key challenge is the sector’s broad range of activities and fragmented nature, which means “it’s not easy to present a coherent narrative” to potential new entrants. 

A huge 97% of the industry is made up of micro-companies employing 10 people or fewer, with about 40% of all workers being self-employed. Even the 50 or so large employers tend to operate “behind hoardings”, which results in the sector having a “low profile”, Nichol says.

Another problem is the wide array of roles and occupations. This includes tradespeople like electricians and plumbers, as well as professionals, such as engineers and quantity surveyors. There are also support functions, such as HR and marketing. Each has its own entry route.

“The biggest challenge in construction is the entry route as there’s no obvious career path and it’s currently complex and confusing,” Nichol says. “It’s not very clear what the right qualifications are and it’s difficult for young people and their parents and teachers to find the right information, so they’re often not aware of the opportunities and go elsewhere.”

The biggest challenge in construction is the entry route as there’s no obvious career path

Other barriers include the difficulties faced by young people in obtaining part-time or Saturday jobs, which are considered useful to help them test the waters to see if construction is for them. But even if such tasters are available, young people tend to be put off by a demand for basic qualifications in areas like health and safety.

This situation isn’t helped by a common practice among small employers of recruiting via word of mouth using their own networks of family and friends, narrowing the potential talent pool in the process.

The result of all this is that construction remains “very white and male-oriented” and is “seen as old school and non-diverse”, says Nivene Powell, head of communities at housebuilding firm Eco World London. 

The Rethinking Recruitment report from CITB reveals that women make up only 14% of the total workforce, a figure that falls to just 3% in frontline, site-based roles. Members of ethnic minorities also account for a mere 6% despite comprising 14% of the wider working-age population. It’s perhaps unsurprising that just 30% of research respondents felt that construction was for people like them. 

“I don’t think it’s marketed in an attractive way,” Powell says. “In terms of recruitment and raising the profile of the industry, you don’t see anything in local shops or on the Tube or in places where diverse groups visit.” 

For women, barriers to entry include not only the male-dominated nature of the industry, but also expectations of having to move from site to site and a lack of flexible working opportunities. That’s particularly off-putting for those with caring responsibilities. 

“The construction sector has an image problem, with many people feeling it’s quite a laddish culture,” says Gloster. “Interestingly though, when we spoke to women and other minority groups, that wasn’t necessarily their perception of working there, so there’s a big divide between what happens on the inside and the perceptions of those on the outside, which needs to be addressed.”

Need for upskilling 

Internal skills development is another challenge, with a big divide between the industry’s requirements and the reality on the ground. 

Although it has had recruitment difficulties and underlying skills shortages for the last 10-15 years, it has done too little to address them. “The UK relied on European labour as a sticking plaster and hasn’t focused enough on training people already in the country,” Gloster says. “So there’s a need for long-term work on building skills and capabilities to meet the country’s infrastructure requirements.”

To this end, the CITB is working with the sector to introduce a range of initiatives. For example, funds from its membership levy have been used to finance the ‘Go Construct’ portal. This helps anyone considering a career in construction to explore possible jobs and careers and learn how to get into them. 

It has also supported the development of the Talentview Construction website, which aims to match industry entrants to employers offering a first job, apprenticeship or work experience. Another initiative is the Go Construct STEM Ambassador scheme, which encourages participants to promote the industry and talk about their own experiences to learners in schools and colleges.

“The aim is to provide practical support,” says Bennett. “There are a lot of things going on individually that make a bit of a difference, but collectively they have the potential to make a big difference.”

Doing more, quicker

However, to tackle the industry’s challenges effectively, Bennett believes it won’t be enough to simply find new people to undertake traditional skills, such as bricklaying. 

Instead, it will be vital to upskill existing workers and bring in new types of expertise, ranging from digital and environmental knowledge to leadership and management skills. The aim is to boost both quality and productivity and make the most of the skills and experience of the people already in the sector. 

“Every occupational group in construction requires more people with a greater diversity of skills and abilities,” Bennett explains. “In terms of achieving net zero, for instance, we don’t necessarily need more people, we just need them to do things slightly differently.”

There is strong awareness of what needs to be done and positive leadership from organisations like the Construction Leadership Council. However, if the industry is to really be able to hit environmental and other targets, “we will need to do more, and do it quicker”, says Bennett. 

How the industry is tackling its skills problem

The skills shortage is already having an impact on some companies’ ability to take on work, says Nichol. In some instances, they’re actually having to turn projects down, ask employees to do more overtime or rejig their programmes to access agency staff at times when they’re available. 

Some of the larger players, such as Laing O’Rourke and Ilke Homes, have set up factories to manufacture many of the components of their projects off-site. This scenario appeals to a wider demographic, including women. Activities are more appealing for many as they take place inside, and unlike a traditional construction site, the location and hours are fixed, which makes flexible working easier. The automated nature of these facilities also means that fewer staff are required, which is valuable at a time of widespread skills shortages. 

These bigger companies are likewise increasingly going down the digitisation route on-site too, which includes introducing tools to enable the remote operation of plant equipment. 

Other employers, meanwhile, have adopted a policy of taking on and developing young talent and existing staff internally. Civic Engineers is a civil, structural and transport engineering practice. It has a graduate entry scheme and offers degree and HNC-level apprenticeships, as well as providing work experience to paid interns studying for engineering degrees. The aim is to develop an ongoing talent pipeline.

To upskill its [wider] existing workforce, the company has set up a Civic Academy. This offers “bite-sized learning” each fortnight in key areas like carbon-neutral design and green infrastructure, says Caroline Todd, its head of people and culture.

“We’re not going to solve the climate crisis by continuing to do the same thing, so we’ve got to develop a much wider skill set and ensure our workforce reflects the diverse society we live in,” she says.

Encouraging diversity

With this in mind, the company has been working to shift its gender balance over the last five years from an 80:20 to a 60:40 male-female split. It has targeted female engineers, including returners, with focused recruitment activities, showcasing their stories and taking action to “create a culture that’s inclusive and attractive to everyone”.

EcoWorld London has also worked to increase its pool of diverse talent. Together with Hounslow Council and local training provider MIT Skills, it has set up a free-of-charge pre-employment training programme to equip local, unemployed people with the basic skills and trade certifications required to work on a construction site. Participants also spend two weeks of the four-week course gaining work experience at an EcoWorld London site. 

About 60 people have completed the scheme so far, with 29 going on to secure employment and seven entering long-term apprenticeships. The company’s goal is to expand the initiative to other sites. Over time, it will require contractors and subcontractors to sign up to provide suitable apprenticeship places or jobs as part of the initial tender process.

“We’ll also be looking at working with specific organisations, such as Women in Construction and Disability Rights, to help bring more diverse groups into the sector,” says Powell. “We’ll discuss with them how to make it more attractive and address skills gaps across the industry, because we can’t do it alone. There has to be a partnership across the private, public and voluntary sectors if we’re going to solve this problem.”