Skills shortages in construction

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
January, 2017

Employing almost three 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. 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 are there skills shortages in construction?

While investment in construction projects has risen dramatically, the workforce isn't enjoying the same level of growth. Far too few apprentices and 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.

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

How is the construction sector responding?

Nicola argues that the industry must collaborate to raise awareness of the critical role that young people can play in shaping the country's landscape.

One key strategy 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,' adds 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.

What are graduate employers looking for?

Quantity surveyors are in the hottest 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 lack of interest is surprising, as the role 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.

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

Indeed, Willmott Dixon founded its management trainee programme more than 35 years ago, originally focusing on the development of budding quantity surveyors. While the organisation has since extended their scope to much-needed planners, design managers and estimators, the role of quantity surveyor remains central to its strategy.

The organisation looks 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 construction. Applicants who enjoy solving problems, and have naturally strong skills in numeracy, communication and negotiation, are at a particular advantage.

'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,' Rick adds.