Building solutions to skills shortages in construction

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
October, 2016

Employing more than two million people and generating around £100billion every year for the UK economy, the construction industry is vital to the nation's prosperity

However, impressive sector growth over the past five years has led to a near-critical shortage of skills in key roles, including quantity surveyor and planning manager. What's more, a recent Infrastructure UK report highlighted that to meet the government's planned £411billion investment in 564 major projects by 2020, an incredible 150,000 engineers and one million construction workers will be required.

Why work in the construction sector?

While the number of opportunities has risen dramatically, the workforce isn't enjoying the same level of growth. Far too few graduates are entering the sector, a situation worsened by the fact that almost 400,000 current employees are expected to retire over the next decade.

All of this means that the construction industry currently offers fantastic opportunities for young people. With demand far outweighing supply, salaries are flourishing; according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), workers in construction saw their wages increase by more than 6% in 2015 - a growth rate three times larger than the rest of the workforce.

Willmott Dixon founded its management trainee programme more than 35 years ago, originally focusing on the development of budding building managers and quantity surveyors. While the organisation has since extended this to much-needed planners, design managers and estimators, both aforementioned roles remain central to its strategy.

'We look for school and college leavers with A-levels or a relevant HND qualification, as well as graduates either with a relevant degree or those with a non-cognate degree who can prove their passion for working within the construction industry,' reveals Rick Lee, chief HR officer. 'Once on board, we ensure that our trainees are given the opportunity to experience placements in different areas of the business before choosing an area in which to specialise.'

What issues and skills shortages is the industry facing?

The property and construction sector must work to respond to the impending skills crisis - but how? Nicola Gotzheim is head of learning and development at Kier Group, which offers three early careers pathways: apprenticeships, the Kier Degree and the graduate development programme. She argues that the industry must collaborate to raise awareness of the critical role that young people can play in shaping the country's landscape.

'The coming years promise to be extremely exciting for the sector and we're looking forward to attracting the next generation of talent,' Nicola adds. 'However, construction and engineering roles are still poorly understood and appreciated by school leavers and parents.'

One key strategy aimed at combating this is the Institution of Civil Engineers' (ICE) Shaping the World campaign. A founding partner of the initiative, Kier Group created visuals that demonstrated how city skylines would look without key landmarks; for example, London without The Shard and Tower Bridge, and Birmingham without Spaghetti Junction. 'This showed what can be achieved in our sector, and led to a number of people approaching us about routes into the industry,' expands Nicola.

The annual Open Doors initiative is another strategy, one that sees construction companies open their sites to the public so that they can learn more about the industry. This year, Willmott Dixon opened up 15 sites while Kier Group opened up 20 sites, including the Concorde's new home and the company's £250million upgrade of Thames Water's sewage treatment works. 'This gives everyone a fantastic chance to see just how diverse a career in construction is, and understand the raft of opportunities that are available,' explains Nicola.

In focus: Quantity surveying

As previously mentioned, quantity surveyors are in particularly hot demand; a Knight Frank survey has shown that 59% of developers and housebuilders believe that this particular shortage has negatively impacted UK projects, while RICS expects the situation to worsen markedly over the coming years unless there is significant sector intervention.

The role, claims Rick, offers good career prospects, attractive salaries, and the exciting potential to run a construction site from a commercial point of view within a few years. Rick adds that it would best suit 'those who enjoy solving problems, and have naturally strong skills in numeracy, communication and negotiation'.

'People with quantity surveying skills are constantly being approached about new job opportunities,' Rick explains. 'This has meant that wages have been pushed up, and some people have become self-employed consultants while demand remains so high.'