Prioritise skills or pay the price

The Construction Leadership Council’s Industry Skills Plan has highlighted the true extent of the current skills crisis and alleviating it needs to be the top priority of companies across the industry, according to Mark Wakeford, joint managing director of Stepnell.

The paper, which was released earlier this year, detailed some of the key challenges facing construction as it comes out of the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, with addressing the ever-growing skills gap identified as being of critical importance.

Wakeford, who chairs the board of the regional contractor, believes that the problem has been underplayed by several industry bodies for some time and that tackling the issue head on is the only way to avoid a disastrous void of skills on the ground.

Wakeford said: “The numbers are stark. There are 3.5 million people employed in the construction sector – even if the average length of a career is 40 years, we would still need nearly 90,000 new recruits every year just to plug the gaps.

“If you add into that mix that a third of the industry’s workforce is over 50 years old, the 40,000 new recruits targeted by the likes of the CITB is likely to be well below what is needed.

“In our experience, there are enough specialist companies that exist in the construction sector, but the skills within these businesses are spread thinner and thinner every year due to a rapidly ageing workforce.

“The outlook is particularly bleak in outside the metropolitan centres, where the dearth of skills is becoming a major productivity issue for on-site projects in particular – leading to greater quantities of re-work, longer delivery periods and a stagnation of output levels.”

While the Industry Skills Plan is just one of several initiatives proposed to address the ongoing crisis, Wakeford believes that this approach is not only better placed to succeed than its predecessors, but also has the potential to revolutionise the approach to skills and training throughout the industry.

Wakeford said: “Skills have been an industry issues for as long as anyone can remember – my first experience of a national debate was at my first meeting at the Strategic Forum for Construction in 2006, prior the last major recession and long before the pandemic.

“There are some notable and significant differences between the Industry Skills Plan and previous attempts to formulate an industry-wide approach. Not only does it address the four areas of biggest concern – access to the industry, the breadth of entry points, competencies required in the industry and the need to modernise our skill base – it is also backed by the UK government and key delivery skills agencies.

“This means that the report isn’t just hot air – it provides a timed action plan with named bodies accountable for progress in every area.

“The challenge to the industry and individual companies will be to deliver on the promises given within the plan. Hopefully it will help drive the priority of skills up the industry’s agenda and encourage companies to allocate sufficient resources.

“When it is boiled down, having the right skills in the industry is essential not just for continuing to provide our customers with a competent construction service, but for the very survival of the businesses within construction.”

Alongside the findings of the report, Stepnell has been working keenly on tackling the skills gap within its own business over several years, most recently introducing its Emerging Talent platform to maximise the company’s intake of graduates, trainees, apprenticeships and placement candidates.

Wakeford said: “The recommendations of the plan have echoed some key points that we have identified at Stepnell as being areas where we need to develop.

“Chief among these is the need to modernise our skills base. The report notes that skills will change drastically over the life of new entrants and that everyone in the industry will need to respond to the growing role of technology, the ever-increasing green agenda and other pressures.

“We’re already anticipating that all of our employees will need to retrain to some extent at various points throughout their careers, and our local colleagues will have to respond to this demand.

“There is also a need to recruit from a much wider base and to make sure our new entrants are “work-ready”. There is an opportunity for a paradigm shift in how, where and who the industry recruits, which can alleviate the skills shortage.

“We’re also recognising the need for a rise of direct employment and the benefits that brings, be that within our supply chain or within Stepnell as a business. Direct employees are easier to train and are more likely to repay that investment over time.

“This change in employment status will reduce the flexibility of our supply chain, but may have massive effects on the productivity of these people. This dovetails with the need to retrain our staff in new technologies as it can improve our service to our customers.

“It is vital that the industry continues to develop and attract young, skilled workers, who are driven to succeed, learn and grow, and really care about doing a good job.

“With 13% of staff in each of our regions holding a position as an apprentice or trainee, our teams are passionate to support future generations of construction specialists.”


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