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Construction’s conundrum: Solving the skills shortage

Will efforts to invest in infrastructure, retrofit homes, meet net zero commitments, and continue construction’s digital transformation be significantly impacted by skill shortages?

 

Kay Pitman, WBEF Manager
28 July 2022

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.

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.

Lisa Molloy MRICS,
Commercial Director, Strabag UK

Digitalisation

‘I call digital a friend of construction’, explains Anil Sawhney. ‘In our sector, I think we have all taken a significant strides in adopting digital tools, technology, and other emerging trends like prefabricated and offsite construction. In the past, you could not imagine a job posting saying “BIM or VDC Manager” or “Construction Modeller”, so we are already seeing success in our lifetimes as new pathways for entry into the industry open.’

Digitalisation is also becoming a hook to attract the younger generation into the sector, highlights Sarah Switzer. ‘When young professionals are at interview, being able to speak on the data piece and what we are doing really excites them. It is key: young professionals are interviewing the company as much as we are interviewing them. We’ve recently added a data and technology competency to our graduate development programme.’

Diversity and retention

Diversity in the industry can be increased by taking a chance on people who don’t have the typical background and supporting them with a framework for training. ‘We have been able to increase our graduate training programme by looking outside of the normal degrees. We’ve been able to diversify, not just for female graduates, but also graduates of different nationalities and backgrounds’, says Sarah Switzer. Programmes like the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) mentor programme target students who are female or from a minority ethnic group in the US. They positively engage with communities that are underrepresented in the industry.

‘I think there’s a long way to go, but I do see a lot of change’, states Lisa Molloy. Stabag UK are involved in a lot of initiatives to get more diverse people into industry and help plug the skills gap. ‘We also need to make sure we retain new people in the industry. That’s a big issue we face. We get a lot of women in industry but our retention of them isn’t great, and we need to look at that as an industry’ she highlights.

Alasdair Reisner agrees. ‘The industry’s record on this is sadly, pretty appalling, but I agree that things are moving forward. We know that diverse teams work more effectively than ones that are monoculture, so this should be in all our interests.’ The Civil Engineering Contractors Association has for several years run a fairness, respect, and inclusion programme in the UK, that has trained around 7,000 people in equity, diversity, and inclusion awareness. They learn how to be ambassadors within their organisations. However, as Alasdair highlights, in an industry that employs nearly 2 million people in the UK, its nowhere near enough: ‘It’s time to start taking this really seriously’, he says.

We know that diverse teams work more effectively than ones that are monoculture, so this should be in all our interests.

Alasdair Reisner
Chief Executive, Civil Engineering Contractors Association

Closing the skills gap

We have to get creative when it comes to shortages, and look at skill adjacencies, explains Sarah Switzer. ‘In Houston, the oil and gas industry took a huge hit at the start of the pandemic, and the market was flooded with candidates from an oil and gas background. The project type differs from true construction, but they do have skillsets that are transferrable. So it’s about making that investment in training and helping candidates to make the switch to construction.’

Partnering with historically black colleges and universities is also important, says Sarah Switzer. ‘Getting in front of those students who may not have a lot of exposure to the construction industry and letting them know there’s a great career path available, and informing them of the steps to take to make it happen.’

‘With young people, the biggest issue is that they and their parents and teachers don’t understand what we do in the construction industry’, highlights Lisa Molloy.  ‘I think we have an image problem with young girls in particular. We need to educate young people about the industry: every day is different, and you can really make a difference in how we build the future.’ Alasdair Reisner highlights the need to work with schools and universities. ‘Even at 14 years old, young people can have a strong idea of what they want to do. We should not be afraid of highlighting that our industry is a well-paid one. Apprenticeships can give high quality training and you do not end up with a lot of university debt. With universities, it’s about working with industry to make sure the degree route provides the knowledge that industry is looking to develop.’

Construction’s conundrum: Solving the skills shortage

This webinar looks at whether the skills gap represents a regional or global problem, its severity, causes and what industry and government can do to help resolve the issue? Panellists also discuss the ramifications of skill shortages on project delivery times and quality.