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Survey findings reveal industry views on the construction skills gaps

Industry needs to work harder to promote a professional & positive image

The first Boardroom to Building Site survey was launched by BRE last month at Ecobuild, providing some stark reading in terms of the skills shortages which we discovered in key growth areas for the construction industry’s future development. However, by initiating a regular in-depth skills survey which also highlights issues around recruitment, retention and gender diversity BRE is also helping the industry engage in an honest conversation about the ‘pinch points’ it urgently needs to address to bridge the skills gap.

The survey was so named because it looked at a broad range of skills issues, all the way from boardroom leaders to building site workers. It was concerning that skills shortages in BIM and sustainability were seen as lacking compared to others, as most respondents also put IT and sustainability at the top of list of skills which will be important in the next 10 years. However, management, plastering, electrical and plumbing skills were also highlighted so a major recruitment effort is needed, but the industry can deliver this by working closely with the education sector.

I gave a packed Ecobuild audience some of the anecdotal feedback in the survey, to focus minds on the problems as well as solutions, and one stand-out was that it is not about retention, rather “finding new people with the right skills.” But another key remark made was that “we lost a lot of good staff in the recession,” so there is considerable catching up to do. Finally, an important comment was made about the need to “value and develop staff” which sounds simple but is crucial to not only deliver but also to communicate to new professionals and graduates so they view construction as a career path they want to follow.

There are a range of reasons for the skills shortages highlighted in the survey. These include a gap between the education levels and skills achieved and employers’ real world requirements, an unstable job environment, and retention issues such as resulting from staff not being guaranteed employment following training which would enable them to put it into practice. However a major overlaying factor is that the construction industry still suffers from an image problem, which is putting off potential new entrants and must be tackled as a matter of urgency to attract the next generation of staff with the right skills.

A large number of respondents (91%) believed that people outside the industry had a poorer image of the industry than those within it, and it would be dangerous to labour under the misconception that it is seen as an attractive place to work by most outside the industry. Recruitment initiatives need to stress that the industry is “not just muddy boots,” said one respondent. There is an urgent need to disseminate positive stories, and promote the modern family-friendly and work-life balance benefits which the industry can deliver, as well as its innovative and cutting edge aspects.

Working hard to make construction attractive for the next generation of skilled staff also means placing a focus on women, who may be put off by an image that construction is still a ‘man’s world.’ A total of 62% of survey respondents said the industry needed to “boost positive culture around women” and 61% said we need to promote the gender diversity that does exist far better to attract female entrants.

The skills survey will now be undertaken on an annual basis showing BRE’s commitment to providing a real picture of the current issues going forward. It lays out where construction needs to work smarter with the education sector to address the problems and place construction among the aspirational career choices. This includes promoting and supporting good quality training, and putting a spotlight on the high-tech opportunities within this £92 billion industry, while emphasising that it is a well-paid, safe and supportive place to work.

Some structural changes such as simpler apprenticeships are needed to close the skills gap, but there is much that the industry can do organically, working with educational bodies such as BRE Academy to ensure training is relevant and the positive messages get out there. The bridge between academia and industry is continual and both sides need to work together to ensure professionals are equipped with the skills to ensure employability. An example is BREEAM’s Accredited Professional qualification which is producing fully BREEAM-ready graduates who are now entering the industry and delivering this world-class sustainability standard.

Working in partnership, we can champion a better image for construction which together with the right training will provide the industry with the essential skills required for the long-term.