Report raises fears of skills gap construction sector timebomb

New figures published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have underlined fears of a skills gap timebomb in the UK construction sector.

The report, which examined the make-up of the UK construction workforce, found clear evidence that the workforce is ageing. In the 20-year period to 2011, there was a 13% increase in the numbers of construction workers aged 45 years and over.

In particular, the report noted a clear trend of an ageing workforce among UK-born construction workers, with one in five UK-born workers expected to reach retirement age by 2021.

The ONS report also notes the UK’s reliance on migrant labour, particularly from the EU, underlining concerns around the sustainable supply of skilled labour post-Brexit.

Of the 2.2 million people working in the UK construction industry, around 165,000 people (7.5 per cent) are EU nationals. Of these, almost half (49%) are from Poland, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia or Latvia while a further 29% are from Romania or Bulgaria.

In London, the proportion of overseas workers is even higher, with 28% of construction workers hailing from the EU, while 7% are non-EU nationals.

Kelly Boorman

Commenting on the new figures, Kelly Boorman, head of construction at RSM, said: “With an ageing workforce approaching retirement, there are legitimate concerns that the next generation of leaders are not yet ready to take their place.

“Anecdotal evidence also suggests that employers are already finding it harder to attract and retain staff. While the position regarding the status of EU citizens currently living and working in the UK is becoming clearer, the longer term uncertainty could be dissuading EU citizens from seeking work in the UK.

“The risk is most acute in London where one third of workers are from overseas. For UK construction firms, finding a sustainable long-term solution to the talent crisis should be top of the list of priorities.”

The options open to construction firms to try and plug the skills gap include:

  • Engaging with schools and colleges – the number of students taking at least one STEM subject at A-Level has reduced significantly in recent years. Firms must engage with schools and colleges at an early stage and find ways to spark interest in engineering and construction.
  • Increasing apprenticeships – the numbers of apprenticeships in UK construction has been steadily growing since 2012/13 but the numbers are yet to return to the levels seen a decade ago. The apprenticeship levy scheme will go some way to rectifying this, but employers need to get right behind apprenticeship initiatives and invest appropriately.
  • Reforming recruitment, talent management and training – firms need to carry out a long-term assessment of their HR challenges and opportunities and develop a holistic strategy that will find the best talent, nurture it and retain it in the longer term.
  • Innovation through technology - using advanced technology such as virtual and augmented reality along with machine learning will not only accelerate much-needed innovation in the sector but will also provide an alternative to manual labour and help attract the next generation into the construction world through tech opportunities.

  • Pre-fabrication and modular - The push towards more pre-fabrication and modular build will remove both transport and labour traffic on sites, with a large proportion of the construction taking place at new manufacturing sites. This could be more attractive to workers keen to have local base rather than working and managing multiple sites.

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