The UK is on the verge of what is probably the most momentous change to its business climate since it entered the Common Market 40 years ago, and yet the construction sector is struggling to meet historical challenges, let alone those which it will inevitably face post-Brexit.
- Shortage of skills:
We are in an age where we are facing the retirement of the baby boomers! 22% of workers in the sector are aged between 50 and 60, compared with only nine per cent being 24 or younger. The challenge is how to transfer all that knowledge to new entrants before it is lost. Surveys repeatedly show that the construction industry is not attracting enough talent to meet growing demand. A recent BSRIA survey (November 2018) found that 78% of member companies were having trouble finding suitably qualified workers.
Government’s approach to this has resulted in a situation where in 2018 fewer students are considering university courses for fear of the debt they will incur. Its flagship apprenticeship scheme, for many seen as the utopian answer to encourage vocational training, is stalling, with only 114,400 overall starts between August and October 2017 compared with 155,700 in the same period in 2016.
Recent announcements allowing levy payments to more easily flow down through the supply chain are welcome attempts to reverse this trend. In the BSRIA survey, 64% of firms in the sector are planning to recruit apprentices over the next three years to help plug the skills gap.
- Stagnant productivity:
A recent World Economic Forum study found that the construction industry’s productivity advancements have been “meagre” compared to those in the rest of the world’s industries during the last 50 years. The study reported that the construction industry has actually lost productivity over the last 40 years. The causes for this have been identified as:
- Inadequate project planning, with workers spending up to 63% of their time waiting around.
- Poor collaboration and communication on projects.
- Fragmentation of the sector causing too many handoffs and rework within the project.
- Shortage of skilled workers resulting in the slow adoption of new techniques and technologies such as BIM.
Graduates who enter the workforce are found to be only partially ready for work. BSRIA’s experience has been that many of its member organisations have needed to put their graduate recruits on a foundation year of additional training before they are ready to be productive.
The industry appears like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights when faced with the challenge of delivering a project on time and within budget – only 25% of projects are completed within 10 per cent of original deadlines. Cost and schedule over runs seem to be the norm in construction. BSRIA has led the industry in attempts to improve this with its publication and training course on BG6 Design Framework for Building Services, and its Soft Landings process which is progressively being adopted by government and other organisations.
- Sustainable construction:
Government has set our industry a target to lower greenhouse emissions by 50% by 2025. While admiring ambition, some would say this may be unrealistic. According to the UK Green Building Council, the construction and maintenance of buildings and other structures is responsible for around half of CO2 emissions in the UK.
Cement is a particular culprit and accounts for half of the industry’s emissions. BSRIA is supporting initiatives around the circular economy designed to eradicate as much waste as possible, and if sustainability in construction is to be addressed, part of the solution is to cascade innovation to all levels of the industry.
We will not be able to address these issues without focusing on the provision of vocational training in our industry. Short courses, in particular, offer the opportunity for exposure to the latest ideas, technologies, processes and techniques leading to an increase in our capacity to adopt new methods and technologies. From these foundations will spring improvements to our productivity.
The development of training modules aimed at recent entrants to the sector will make them more productive more quickly, improve worker motivation and reduce staff turnover and absenteeism. Training in the latest project management and construction methods will ultimately improve work quality, leading to better customer satisfaction and improvement in the wellbeing of building occupants.
This is an urgent call to action for the construction sector to put vocational training at the centre of its improvement plans as we prepare to enter a new era.