How to Overcome the Construction Industry Skill Shortage

May 19th 2021

The pool of skilled construction workers in the UK is shrinking. And if you haven’t felt the pinch now, it’s likely you will soon. Whether today, tomorrow, or next year: a shortage of skilled talent will cause huge problems for the sector in both the short and long term, and no one will be immune to the effects.

News of a skills shortage won’t come as a surprise to companies who have remained consistent with their hiring plans over the last few years. The 2016 Farmer Review predicted a 20-25% decline in the construction workforce within a decade.

That’s a huge chunk of available talent to lose in ordinary times. But with Brexit, IR35, and COVID-19 all coming at once, it’s no surprise hiring skilled construction workers is a struggle. This dramatic decline in numbers will eventually undermine our ability to deliver critical infrastructure and housing in the near future.

We want to figure out is why it’s happening. We know there are numerous causes, so we’ve put together the top line information you need to know about how the skill shortage affects your company, why it’s taking place, and the steps you need to take to overcome it.

The Shortage Occupation List

The Shortage Occupation List (SOL) highlights jobs facing a shortage of skilled labour. The Migration Advisory Committee compiles it every year alongside the UK Government to determine what dispensations need to be made regarding immigration in order to import skilled workers where local talent doesn’t exist.

In theory, this should make it easier to recruit from international talent pools. In reality, it points to holes in the economy.

Engineers of all classifications, notably Construction Engineers, feature heavily on the latest version of the SOL and have done for some years now, dating back to the 2008 recession. This shows the skill shortage is an historic issue, but that it has gained momentum in recent years.

The Engineer conducted a survey that revealed the extent of the impact: 37% of Engineering professionals said the skills deficit was having the largest impact on their sector.

There simply aren’t enough skilled Engineers available to fill all the roles the industry has to offer. You would think this wouldn’t be such an issue, but a shortage of skilled talent causes problems far beyond the occasional recruitment headache.

A difficult year

2020 inspired changes that were unfathomable before the pandemic. Multiple lockdowns created unexpected recruitment barriers around the world. Brexit generated an air of uncertainty across the board in construction. And changes to IR35 regulations capped off a unique combination of challenges which made it incredibly difficult recruiting under “normal” circumstances.

The skills gap has only widened. A survey found average salaries across the sector had risen by 9% in the last year, which may sound attractive to talent, but is indicative of the scarcity of skilled workers available. As early as 2019, two-thirds of construction SMEs reported struggling to hire bricklayers, and almost 60% had difficulties finding carpenters.

Fortunately, there’s a host of things you can do to fight back against the shortage and stop it negatively impacting your company.

Retrain experienced people

We know we’re an ageing industry – currently around 22% of the current workforce is over 50 – but there’s a good reason for that.

With age comes experience, and one of the irreplaceable benefits of experienced employees is they come equipped with a wealth of knowledge under their belt which can make a huge difference to the capability of your team. Which means holding onto your longest standing people is vital to bridging skills shortages now and in the future.

Over time, members of your team might want to change their role to better suit their needs and evolving skillset. For example, someone in their 60s may not want to be so involved with labour-intensive roles. Retraining them for a less physically demanding position means you retain their expertise, at the same time as keeping them satisfied and engaged in their work.

Consider compromising on candidates

Retraining older, more experienced employees – and accepting candidates who may need a bit more development to get up to speed – fit in the same bracket. Both involve topping up your own talent pools where the right talent doesn’t exist naturally.

When you’re looking for new talent to recruit, do you often see people with the right background and attitude, who are perhaps one or two steps away from where you need them to be technically?

If the exact talent you need doesn’t exist, invest time and effort into training candidates who have the right fundamentals in place, but need a bit more development to get them up to speed. You’ll be adding serious value to that person, as well as covering any immediate skill gaps and protecting against them in the future.

Engage the younger generation

One of the main reasons for the lack of skilled workers is the dwindling numbers of young people entering the construction industry. We know we have an ageing workforce, so it’s crucial to engage with and encourage younger generations to join as well.

Attracting young people to the sector is something we should all encourage. It could be something as simple as visiting schools, partnering with universities, or establishing grad schemes to secure the next generation of talent.

Talking to young people raises awareness of the diverse range of roles available in construction, and how they can go about securing a highly rewarding career when the time comes. Considering this approach a way to tackle the skills shortage at its source.

Embrace diversity

Younger generations of workers are known to value transparency, diversity, and equity in the workplace. These should be points of focus for any employer attempting to attract a younger generation of talent.

Particularly diversity, the word itself has both racial and gendered connotations – and rightly so. White men still dominate the UK construction sector, BAME communities only make up 5.4% and women account for just 14% of employees. But diversity also means accommodating a multi-generational workforce too.

There is a lack of diversity within the construction industry overall, but there doesn’t need to be. There are huge benefits associated with embracing diversity at work, access to a wider pool of skilled workers being one. Increased profitability and problem solving capability being two more.

Here to help

If you need help addressing the shortage of skilled construction talent in the UK, we’ve got you covered.

Brownlee Dean are civil engineering and construction recruitment experts who put people before profit. We work with large national contractors and small family-run businesses on projects ranging from fast-track refurbishment schemes to multi-million pound critical infrastructure schemes.

Whether you’re recruiting for short-term temporary hire or a senior strategic placement, access to our extensive network of talent can help you fight the skill shortage head-on. Get in touch today to talk through how we can help you.

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