The UK construction skills shortage

As we pass through another cycle of the wheel that is the UK economy, we have once again witnessed the loss of many thousands of experienced construction workers since 2008, many of whom intend to never return to the industry. Now that we are in the midst of a construction revival, we face an inevitable shortage of labour. 

If we fail to act decisively, the problem will get worse as the construction workforce moves towards retirement. A recent survey conducted by Wienerberger found that 22% of construction workers are over 50 and 15% are over 60, meaning time will soon run out. 

Ever since the recession of the early 1990s, there has been increasing evidence of not only increasing skills labour shortages, but also a corresponding decrease in the quality of construction works. In other words, we have two problems – a skills shortage and a skills gap.

Lack of training
Nationally, there are currently twelve construction colleges as well as several private training providers offering training in plumbing, electrics, brickwork and roofing, but not all of these offer training up to NVQ Level 3. When Wienerberger spoke to some of the colleges, they told us about the difficulties they face in trying to recruit enough young people to their courses. They also informed us that there are many cultural reasons.

Firstly, schools ‘cream off’ many of the brightest students for full-time education and construction is viewed as something only for those who cannot attain academic qualifications. Secondly, no longer are many 16-19 year olds interested in getting up at the ‘crack of dawn’ and making their own way to a pick up point for a minimum wage whilst in training. They have an expensive lifestyle and needs; they want the newest technology and clothes, but the prospect of working in, for example, a supermarket filling shelves appeals as a better work environment than being outside in all weathers. Young people need encouragement to motivate them to learn a trade, but unfortunately, many are in the position where construction could be their only option and receive little support, if any, from their parents or peers. 

There have been attempts at non-traditional forms of recruitment, such as encouraging women to explore construction, however this has been met with limited success. EU expansion has also provided extra construction labour, but this tends to be short-term and can often be controversial.

There are, of course, schemes in place, which attempt to maintain and increase skill levels, such as National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) and Diplomas. That said, there are many in the industry that criticise these, arguing that NVQs simply accredit workers for what they already do, rather than providing clear training to improve their skills. There has also been a stealth ‘dumbing down’ in the qualifications. College attendance for roofers used to be 32 weeks over two years to achieve NVQ level 2; it’s now 28 weeks. So for the Government to reach its aim (in line with the rest of Europe) that everyone has a minimum of a level 2, rather than raise their game, they have in effect lowered the achievement criteria.

Consequences for the industry

In roofing particularly, we see the skills shortage manifesting itself through companies who have to sub-contract most of their wo

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