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Tom Boland, Global Head of Digitalisation at Zutec, discusses the ways in which the UK construction industry can, and should, address the current skills shortage and the role that technology plays in rebuilding the sector.

There are skill shortages in the construction industry around the world, most of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In the UK, this is primarily due to an ageing workforce, lack of appeal to school leavers and of recruitment diversity, and inadequate funding for apprenticeships. With the addition of Brexit, the number of EU nationals working in construction will also dramatically decrease, causing the construction industry to lose a quarter of its workforce.

This puts the nation in a very difficult position. While the sector is currently experiencing a bounce-back, how long will it last without an injection of fresh blood into the sector? Or should companies be placing more focus on upskilling their employees internally? Further, where do apprenticeships provided by the government fit in, and how important is the use of technology? Here are ways the construction industry can sustain this turnaround and emerge from one the most challenging periods of modern history, stronger and wiser:

Pinpointing the problem

The UK construction industry is facing various obstacles surrounding the skills shortage, so it’s vital to find the root of the problem. The main issue lies in the labour and trades side of the sector, where, according to a report by the CIOB, the total of workers over 60 has increased more than any other age group, and the biggest reduction is in the total of workers under 30. Further, the survey showed that the majority of respondents (76%) are aware of the challenges facing the construction industry, but less than one quarter (24%) know if these issues are being taken into consideration.[1]

The Government is well aware of the matter, and has taken steps to address it. However, many companies have felt that not enough is being done. One positive solution put forth by the Chancellor in his budget announcement in March is a £126 million boost for traineeships for 16-24 year olds. Employers who provide trainees with work experience will also continue to be funded at a rate of £1,000 per trainee.

Other schemes and measures include: payments for employers who hire new apprentices, whereby the Government will extend and increase the payments made to employers in England who take on new apprentices; supporting apprenticeships across different employers, through which the Government will introduce a £7 million fund from July this year to help companies in England set up and expand portable apprenticeships, and ‘Help to Grow’—a new scheme which offers up to 13,000 companies across the UK a digital and management boost.

This is certainly a move in the right direction for the industry, and will not only financially support employers in their recruitment process from the trades right up to the managerial level, but motivate them to come up with other solutions to the shortage crisis. Encouraging school leavers to take on these apprenticeships is, of course, crucial as well, and would take a joint effort by the Government, teachers and employers.

Looking within

Inspiring and engaging with young people to join the industry is important, and is a large part of the answer to the UK’s greying workforce. However, in order to truly grow, companies should take full advantage of their resources and balance hiring new recruits with upskilling current team members.

The industry is fed from the trades upwards, and with Brexit, it’s unsustainable to rely on importing skilled workers from abroad. Investing in ongoing training for existing employees is therefore key, and can also boost morale and enhance companies’ reputations in the long run. At Zutec, we have been focusing on upskilling fresh graduates on our operations teams so that they can move up the career ladder internally.

Improving digital skills

Further, in an increasingly digitised world, there needs to be a focus on training employees, such as engineers and project managers, on the use of new digital tools, such as the ones we provide at Zutec. There is a lag in the industry regarding the use of technology, putting many companies at a disadvantage when it comes to executing their projects in a cost and time-efficient manner. Upskilling to master the latest construction technologies, such as BIM     software and data analytics applications, is essential, and digital processes and collaborative tools have proven to be incredibly useful during the pandemic where remote working has become the norm.

Training programmes specifically designed to improve employees’ digital skills are valuable. They can help both fresh graduates and long-term staff come to grips with game-changing technology that can enhance projects from start to finish, and ensure better accuracy of the construction and handover of buildings, both from the office and on site.

A brighter future

The skills gap in the UK construction industry has been a problem for years, however we are truly well-placed as a nation to address it now. Despite the added challenges of the pandemic, it’s one of the few sectors which has proven to be resilient, and has been able to adapt in the face of the nation’s numerous lockdowns and economic downturn.

In order to keep the momentum going, companies need to look towards both hiring new recruits and upskilling existing employees. With the government also providing businesses with apprenticeship support, there is hope for the industry to solve the biggest obstacle—an ageing workforce—and encourage young people into the trades side of the sector.

Employers should also assess their company culture at the leadership level, and make it clear to their teams that there is a route from ‘the tool to the boardroom’. Implementing training programmes to focus on the use of digital tools is vital as well, and will help staff to acquire the skills they need to not only progress in their careers, but to be part of a tech revolution that is set to transform the entire industry.

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[1] https://www.ciob.org/sites/default/files/CIOB%20research%20-%20The%20Impact%20of%20the%20Ageing%20Population%20on%20the%20Construction%20Industry_0.pdf

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