Mind the Gap: The UK’s Construction Skills Shortage

Phil Smith – Managing Director UK & Ireland, Kingspan Insulated Panels

The risk

The economic indicators published each month continue to tell a positive story for the UK construction sector, pointing to a steady recovery and a return to sustained growth. But, while we’ve had good news for the past two and half years, there are now some worrying signs that the industry’s labour shortage could compromise this trend.

According to the latest NSCC State of Trade Survey, nearly half of specialist contractors are currently unable to find skilled labour to satisfy orders, and over a quarter of companies are not in a position to bid for work. Sadly, these figures are at their highest for 14 years.

The roots of this problem are well recognised. The recession hit the construction sector hard and saw over 350,000 skilled workers lose their jobs, with many of these people retraining and leaving the profession. Alongside this, the industry has found it difficult to attract young talent to refill its labour pipeline. And, with 22% of construction workers over 50, this issue will only get worse as our aging workforce moves towards retirement.

Investment in training has also been a casualty of the downturn as many contractors and installers have cut training budgets or have been unable to justify ‘downtime’ away from building sites for their employees.

These issues combined mean we have a two-sided problem; a lack of overall resource, and a lack of skills within the workforce that is available. So, as the construction market picks up this skills gap is widening. But there’s another dynamic at play here. A threat that has yet to be properly recognised.

This lack of skilled labour could compromise the construction market’s movement towards higher performing, more energy and cost efficient buildings. What the industry has been working towards for decades is now at risk because it has neglected to invest adequately in skills.

While owners, investors and architects are increasingly demanding high performing, holistically-designed buildings, there’s a danger that contractors and installers are unable to deliver on optimised specifications. The drive towards low energy buildings requires sophisticated envelope solutions that minimise energy waste through better insulation and airtightness. The technology to achieve this exists, but the performance of these solutions is dependant on how they are installed. Put simply, the skills gap is in danger of also creating a performance gap in our buildings.

The opportunity

But we should see the opportunity here. If the industry comes together to invest in the next generation of skilled labour, it is possible that we can renew and reinvent the UK’s construction workforce.

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has forecast that 182,000 new UK jobs are expected to be created in the construction industry by 2018. Surely a return to the UK’s proud tradition of training and apprenticeships can only help attract the hundreds of thousands of young people who are currently seeking employment into these positions?

In the pursuit of ever-higher performing buildings, we need all actors in the construction value chain to work more closely. This means working to a common philosophy, language and the same high standards. Having contractors who are more skilled and have a deeper technical knowledge of the solutions they are installing will bring design and build functions closer together.

Cladding contractors should also see this as an opportunity to mitigate their own risk. More skilled labourers means installations are right first time, with less need for costly remedial work and improved prospects for repeat business. And, as product and system guarantees extend to match the growing performance and cost saving expectations of owners, we will soon see examples of optimised solutions only being made available to those contractors that have the skilled labour to properly install them.

The solution

In an ideal world, every contractor and installer would offer a comprehensive and ongoing training programme for staff. Of course, this is not always possible; partly because of the investment required, and partly because in-house training programmes inevitably require updating as manufacturers’ products and solutions evolve.

Nonetheless, employers must recommit to investing in the continuous professional development of their staff, whether through apprenticeships, in-house schemes, or external training. At a minimum, this means being prepared to pay people their daily rate on time spent improving skills.

Realistically, the right solution requires all industry stakeholders to play their part if we are to achieve a viable and sustainable model for improving the industry’s skill base.

Manufacturers, like Kingspan, need to design integrated systems that are easy to install, but also offer structured training to installers. Over recent years, we’ve noticed demand for our own installer training programmes has increased. So much so that we’re currently exploring new ways to make our courses accessible to even more installers all over the country. We’ve also noticed a dramatic increase in demand for our technical support services, meaning we’ve had to invest in more resource to satisfy these needs. I’d expect that trend to continue as more customers take advantage of the inherent expertise and experience that good suppliers can offer.

Government, as part of its dual commitment to improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s building stock and supporting the labour market, should offer funding to individuals or employers so that taking time out for training becomes viable.

At the centre of any framework will be our industry associations, who will need to work closely with employers, manufacturers and Government bodies to coordinate the development and administration of quality, recognised training programmes and grants.

Our industry is on the move again. A concerted and common commitment to training and skills development in our sector will not only give great career opportunities to the UK’s next generation of construction workers, but also secure our position as leaders in creating the high performing, low energy buildings of the future.

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