Growing labour shortages in the United Kingdom’s vital construction industry represent a huge cause for concern. Construction output in the UK, according to a report from the Cabinet Office, is worth more than £110bn per annum and contributes around seven per cent of the country’s overall GDP. As the UK’s decision to leave the European Union continues to stipulate pretty much every industry’s foreseeable strategy for economic growth, the clamour to achieve self-sustainability has never been more pronounced. Every sector, every sphere of UK PLC needs to learn to stand on their own two feet if they are to survive, or more importantly, compete in the modern world. As harsh a reality as it is, there will be no bailout for builders.
Spook stories surrounding Brexit, though, fail to capture the whole picture. Greater barriers to entry for cheap migrant workers, it is often argued, threaten to undermine many of the benefits which immigration can bring. While this is true to an extent – construction firms have indeed benefited from the ready availability of skilled EU staff – it would be wrong to suggest that the lull and forecasted dive in the industry’s recruitment figures are owed solely to euroscepticism. In truth, construction’s skills gap is also caused by an ageing population and a lack of new entrants, who have been put off the industry for reasons more complex than the colour of their passport.
Construction struggles, for example, with a perception problem among young people, many of whom view it as a “last resort” job. Of course, construction’s impacts on society are self-evident – houses, hospitals and schools are all obviously buildings which required planning and putting together – yet for too long the industry has relied on tacit appreciation of these things, rather than articulating and showcasing them to young minds effectively. Construction is not, as the editor of Construction News Tom Fitzpatrick noted, “just about hard hats and muddy boots”. He told a roundtable discussion at the Conservative Party Conference: “The perception needs to shift away from the conditions you experience on-site.”
The construction industry, then, has a responsibility to up its game when it comes to recruitment. It must diversify its outreach to attract candidates from different races, classes or genders, and get better at selling itself as a career option earlier on in the educational pipeline. This could be achieved by more regular school and university visits by industry professionals, who could dispel any myths that might have formed around what they do.
Courses, in turn, should also be diverse, whether at degree or apprenticeship level. The idea that there should be any distinction in esteem between these two levels, for the record, is a falsehood. The challenge is in making sure that degrees can match apprenticeships for their hands-on experience and that apprenticeships can include more direct routes to management positions.
The Chartered Institute of Building is certainly keen to see more overlap between the industry and academia, with practical experience standing out as a strong opportunity to inform insight. Professionals should be more receptive towards sandwich degree courses, which with their ability to train alongside the changing nature of everyday industry demands, are definitely due a 21st century renaissance. While the CIOB would be reticent in downplaying the importance of classroom learning, it is clear that theory means very little without application. A sandwich placement in industry means that students and course providers alike are able to respond and adapt according to trends and issues as they occur, rather than running the risk that the content of an exam could be outmoded.
In late 2016, the CIOB set up the CIOB Academy, a dedicated training institution developed by the industry for the industry, to stay abreast of technological breakthroughs and new management techniques. The CIOB is the world’s largest professional body for construction. We have a Royal Charter to promote and accredit the science and practice of building for the benefit of society and are informed by nearly 200 years of experience. The development of the CIOB Academy has allowed us to continue to set and adjust the standards for industry, thus reforming the educational and vocational experience.
To date, the CIOB Academy has delivered a range of courses covering various aspects of the construction industry. The Building Conservation Certification Scheme, for instance, was launched last summer. It is a response to an increasing demand for “certified” conservation specialists. Students on this course will be required to demonstrate their competence against the ICOMOS (International Conference on Monuments and Sites) Training and Education Guidelines based on their experience and qualifications. In addition, the scheme requires a demonstration of competence towards sustainability and energy efficiency issues. With climate change being the harbinger for more low-carbon buildings, it is fitting that the industry should be trained to meet this need.
Ultimately, the construction industry is at a crossroads. It can either head down a path towards modernisation, one glossed with a fresh coat of optimism, or it can head down a path towards a cliff edge, which will mean surrendering production to more capable construction scenes in other countries. It’s important that construction does not continue to be understated, and that the narrative peddled is not so simplistic that students consider it “unskilled work” when the exact opposite is the case.