Tackling skills shortages in construction will require innovative and coordinated action
By Mark Wade, Hays
The construction industry has been talking about skills shortages for some roles within the industry for many years, but as the economy recovers from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and activity in the sector continues to ramp up, those shortages have become acute.
In recent months, from a recruitment perspective, we have seen hiring for construction roles either return to or even surpass March 2020 levels and demand seems set to stay high for the rest of the year.
It’s great to see construction in such robust shape, but it suggests there are risks waiting for employers in future if a way isn’t found to encourage more people to choose a career in the sector.
So, what needs to be done to make it appealing against other careers? What will make construction attractive at school level as a career option and help parents to encourage their children? How do we tackle the increasingly common issue of people with engineering, maths, physics and other relevant qualifications opting to go into more lucrative roles in sectors like tech and investment banking? Is attracting more diversity into the sector the answer?
Barry Neilson, chief executive of CITB-Construction Skills NI says while there are huge challenges in terms of skills development, he has supported as much training during the pandemic as before, and remains optimistic. He points to government upgrading energy efficiency across the built environment, huge upcoming investment in infrastructure and the major push towards sustainability as opportunities to be grasped.
“The long-term prospects for construction are really good and it’s not just in the same old construction jobs. Joiners, brickies, plumbers and electricians – there will always be demand for those core skills. But how we apply those core skills is going to change as a result of modern methods of construction becoming more prevalent, the drive towards sustainability and the increasing use of digital technology,” says Barry.
“There’s more competition in the workplace, so we need to make the industry attractive to the next generation. We need to show that we are already using digital skills on site, for example 3D building modelling on a tablet being used from design to delivery in place of physical plans.”
He believes its important to highlight to the younger generation that construction has an impact on society.
“Households will be moving from gas and hydrogen to other renewable sources of energy as part of the push towards net zero carbon. So new buildings will need to have different equipment in the next 15 years and the people installing it will need different skills to the ones they have now,” he says. “Improving energy efficiency in buildings is going to be a massive job and people with skills in this area will be in high demand, not to mention well paid.”
Despite the stability and opportunity for advancement in the industry, Barry believes parents can still be a barrier to young people entering the trade.
“There’s no doubt we need to change or bypass parental perceptions. That means getting into schools early to inspire young people to want to look at construction careers, or at least ensure they don’t rule us out too early,” he explains.
“That applies to girls and boys. Real progress has been made in NI in terms of gender diversity in the professions, the clean hand jobs such as architects, surveyors, engineers. On site female representation is still quite low – about 12% of the site workforce – but as barriers come down, this is definitely growing.”
Apprenticeships, once the accepted route of bringing new talent into the sector, could once again prove crucial to its talent problems, says Richard Kirk, CEO of Workplus, who believes apprenticeships are at an important juncture across the sectors.
“Government – both locally and nationally – has recognised that learning and earning is the best way we can recover from the effects of the pandemic and help people move into sectors that are in demand,” he says.
Richard started Workplus in 2015 as part of an effort to address the skills gap and drive forward employer-led apprenticeships in Northern Ireland. In 2021, Workplus has supported 70 employers in a variety of different sectors including construction.
“The economy and many businesses across Northern Ireland have been shaken in this last year and, as we emerge from the pandemic, priorities will be markedly different: we need more people into work and we are likely to see a change in demand across the sectors. The apprenticeship system is deeply collaborative and is the best way to connect those two priorities.”
“Currently only 12% of businesses in Northern Ireland employ apprentices so it is clear there is still much work to do and barriers to address. Employers who are already engaged in the apprenticeship system have seen the many benefits. Not simply in regard to the financial incentives available, but, from a longer-term perspective, being able to mould talent to the needs of the company which in turn feeds into loyalty and retention as well as more diverse and inclusive workforce. Apprenticeships have formed an important build strategy for many companies and this culture seems to be growing.”
Part of Workplus’s reason for being is to make it easy for employers to find apprentices and ensure employers make the apprenticeship about meaningful employment.
“From the apprentice side, we’ve seen a real appetite from school leavers as well as people looking to reskill or upskill. That is where Workplus acts as a bridge – we connect employers and prospective apprentices, providing a single place for applicants to apply, as well as ensuring a simple, thorough selection process for employers.”
Clearly there is work still to be done to ensure the talent pool is aligned with industry demand in the years ahead.