Last reviewed 4 February 2017

Why is the construction skills gap proving hard to close with home-grown talent? Jon Herbert considers wider problems, surprising answers and an uncomfortable need for significant change.

Young people are rejecting the construction and building industry with worrying implications. The Government recognises the problem and is concerned about both deep-seated construction industry efficiency problems and the low number of people applying to fill skilled job vacancies or develop long-term careers.

To understand the root cause, it commissioned Mark Farmer who was given a specific brief to identify the barriers faced by UK housebuilding. In his report, Modernise or Die, released at the end of 2016 with a number of surprising findings, Farmer warns that the sector will end up on life support without radical changes. It is presently in “survivalist” mode, he says.

Even though the sector generates an estimated £90 billion — 6–7% — of GDP, and employs circa 10% of the UK workforce, it faces chronic skills shortages that are expected to last far into the future. More worrying still is that conventional answers are likely to be no answers at all. A root and branch overhaul of what the industry fundamentally stands for may be the only way forward.

That could be extremely challenging for a sector with a deep-seated image and culture that historically dislikes major change. The future must be very different to the past, says Farmer.

On the face of it, recruitment should not be a major problem. About a million young people are not in education, employment or training. However, they aren’t interested in construction careers.

Millennials, the dynamic young people born either side of the turn of the century who are revitalising UK cities with progressive careers and consumer lifestyles, are giving construction the cold shoulder. In a recent government survey, 14- to 19-year-olds gave construction and building an interest score of only 4.2 out of 10. Career advisors offered a slightly higher 5.6.

Exodus

It is estimated that the industry must recruit or train 700,000 new workers in the next five years to replace those retiring: 22% of current workers are over 50. Some 340,000 jobs have been lost since the financial crisis of 2008 and 182,000 vacancies need to be filled by 2018.

The sector workforce is projected to decline by 25% in the next decade, a situation that could be made worse if foreign workers are excluded in future years. Currently, one in eight construction workers in the UK are foreign; in London the figure is 23%.

Conversely, a falling pound sterling is said to be putting foreign employees off. A home-grown UK solution is needed.

Alternatives to skills

There are technical fixes. The introduction of robust on-site robots, such as bricklayers, coupled with prefabricated buildings machine-made in indoor environments rather than under all weathers on site, are expected to both reduce the workforce size and attract a different type of employee.

Japan sets a precedence. An ageing Japanese population has seen the construction workforce fall by 33% in 20 years. Even so, Tokyo factories turn out 140,000 prefabricated homes every year. Embarrassingly perhaps, Japan will depend on migrant labour to build prestigious sports facilities for the 2020 Olympics.

The UK Government wants to build 200,000 new homes annually. However, Farmer predicts that the 140,000 currently being built — a figure that matches Tokyo’s factory production — could dwindle to 100,000 without radical changes.

Legal & General (L&G) has launched its own indoor housebuilding business designed to turn out thousands of factory-built properties each year. The company now operates a factory near Selby in Yorkshire which is currently the largest of its type in the world. Already a leading UK housebuilder, it is keen to emphasise the environmental benefits of modular housing. L&G Homes will build-up sheets of timber to create cross-laminated timber (CLT), a building material increasingly used in central Europe and Japan. The factory will use large CNC cutting machines to create walls, floor panels, doors and windows.

Cheaper whole lifecycle costs are predicted; raw material and water use, plus waste, will be cut dramatically. The materials used will also act as a carbon sink. In addition, there is evidence that CLT reduces heat energy needs by 70%, says L&G Homes.

Attitudes

These developments have important implications for recruitment. There is new evidence that the UK’s people problems lie not in money or strategy but something more elementary and perhaps harder to fix.

Attitudes, prejudices, outmoded perceptions and (for many young people) a poor choice of language that places more emphasis on action rather than personal work attributes, puts off many pupils, students and graduates — plus their parents, peers and careers advisors who are more likely to recommend medicine, law or finance.

There is little reference to opportunities in project management, as a building information modelling (BIM) expert, a quantity surveyor, or a wide range of valuable support roles that counter the mud and boots image. By contrast, the German and Spanish construction industries are held in higher esteem and attract more young people.

In the UK, applicants are also repelled by historic boom and bust cycles that more factory-centric production could help to counter in future.

The industry that builds essential national infrastructure, including homes, is not just seen to be exciting, secure, aspirational, rewarding, vital and glamorous. Farmer feels that a tilt towards digital engineering will help to create a more positive image and attract younger generations.

New focus

A key Government aim is to double the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates and apprentices needed to fill essential positions in five years’ time. Skills development is a priority in the Government’s new industrial strategy.

Until now, a major source of recruitment has been to cross-recruit from other sectors. However, even if that was a sound strategy, it won’t solve the building sector’s problems.

The wider answer is to appeal directly to future skilled employees still at school. For construction, that doesn’t seem to be working too well.

One reason suggested is that it is hard to create interaction in a complex field like engineering; PowerPoint presentations are failing to kindle interest in the way that other contemporary, forward-looking sectors are able to do.

Another barrier is that while some 24% of young men take STEM subjects at a higher career-orientated level, only 7% of young women do.

An explanation why young women are less attracted according to research carried out by the South East Physics Network is that while men are more inclined to use verbs to describe themselves, women use adjectives.

This may appear to be a matter of splitting nuances. However, STEM culture is traditionally verb-based. It concentrates, for example, on the physical act of engineering or building homes, rather than personal traits good engineers need to succeed that might appeal more to young women.

To counter this trend, Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) has created a resource for schools called People Like Me which targets girls. The aim is to better match personality types with STEM job roles. Similar links are planned to apprenticeships and primary school pupils.

Taxation

One further lever Farmer has suggested to force the construction industry to modernise is a levy designed to change company behaviour. It would be imposed on companies which do not make sufficient efforts to modernise.

The levy could kick in after a certain number of years, with proceeds invested in construction innovation. This may not be popular among traditional housebuilders who feel that modern manufacturing methods aren’t designed for their circumstances.

A further suggestion is the renting of building blocks funded by institutional investors to help smooth out cyclic downturns.