Mapping the skills shortage
The skills shortage in construction is at a magnitude far greater than we expected, explains Lisa Molloy MRICS, Commercial Director, Strabag UK. ‘The issue we have is that there’s not just one reason, there’s a number of reasons, and the shortage is across the board – quantity surveying, engineers, estimators, skilled labour and planners.’ Contributing reasons include an ageing workforce that is going into retirement, the need to attract more people and young people into the industry, and the impacts of Brexit.
Sarah Switzer is HR Specialist, Talent Management at Turner & Townsend Inc. She says, ‘for Turner and Townsend, it’s not that we can’t find the staff, but that we have to be competitive in the market with the salaries that candidates are requesting. We rely heavily on ex-pats for cost management, as Quantity Surveying is not a field of study here. We are reliant on a small talent pool, so the shortage is very real in the US.’ When the US borders shut down in 2020 and the embassies closed, companies were not able to accommodate anyone with an interest in moving to the US. The embassies are now open, but the backlog means that appointments for visas are running with a 6-month waiting time.
In Canada and the Middle East, there are discussions with the governments to offer visa programmes to both skilled workers and core professionals, states Anil Sawhney, Global Programme Lead, Construction and Infrastructure sector.
Impacts on working practices and project delivery
The skills shortage is having a severe effect on infrastructure delivery and affordable housing programmes, highlights Alasdair Reisner, Chief Executive, Civil Engineering Contractors Association. ‘It is severe because construction is a labour-intensive business, and its coming when we are seeing supply chains stresses from inflation and the effects of Covid in many parts of the world. A lot of the skills we are looking for are not those where you can just pull in people from other parts of the economy, they are highly skilled roles you need to train for.’
However, rather than projects not going ahead, the industry is being more selective about the projects they go for or finding ways to de-scope projects and change working practices to adapt. ‘This could be delaying the project or cutting corners in the way the project is delivered, but more positively it could also be using offsite manufacturing, digitalisation and new technologies like drones’, Alasdair Reisner explains.
In the US, the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a trillion-dollar plan that will benefit multiple sectors and industries, creating millions of jobs. ‘But the older workforce is ageing out’, explains Sarah Switzer. ‘I saw a statistic that only 10% of the infrastructure workforce is under 25 years old.’ There is a gap that the industry will have to fill. Particularly with skilled trades, being able to staff projects with more than 100 people is going to be hard, she highlights.
One concerning impact of the skills shortage is the delivery of building retrofitting for carbon reduction. ‘Carbon is the thing we all need to address, but it is a very labour-intensive requirement. It involves a lot of fitting new equipment, putting in new glazing, and these are activities that tend to involve a lot of people. It is not clear to me where those people are going to come from, yet it is essential that we address climate change. I think this is where opportunities in the industry will open out, because you are going to need carbon experts’ say Alasdair Reisner.