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Licensed to skill

Fear of skill shortages has hit its highest level for six years in the second quarter of 2014 – however, there needs to be a concerted effort to attract new talent, says Julia Evans

The easing of the recession, fuelled largely by an increase in consumer spending, has brought welcome respite to many industries including construction and building services.

The sense that all is now well is, unsurprisingly, very far from the truth and the effects of the most severe recession for a generation will be felt for many years to come.

While things will gradually ease one of the consequences of the downturn in all industries, but especially so in the labour intensive construction sector, is not only the loss of labour but also the dramatic reduction in investment in training and development.

Hard facts on the building services sector are difficult to find, however there are plenty of statistics available from general construction and we need to consider these and use them as indicators, as they provide a flavour of the situation as we plan for the future of this particular sector.

To be in a situation of predicted growth is a welcome change for the months, nay, years of depressing figures issued by the Office for National Statistics, whose strap line surely must be ‘don’t shoot the messenger’.

To be contemplating growth after battening down the hatches for so long requires a whole new mind-set and one which inevitably requires some reflection and courage as once again we start to take informed and educated risks about business and investment.

Key among the factors taxing business minds is the prospect of an emergent skills shortage, not only for young people entering the industry, but also for skilled and experienced workers.

Demand and supply lines are very close to one another. Any idea that there is capacity in the market waiting to be reabsorbed as job opportunities increase must surely be questionable.

The idea that those lost from the industry will simply be waiting in the wings to once more take up work seems to me to be a fallacy.

While many employers made supreme efforts to keep people employed, there were also those who lost employees with little ceremony. In those less than comfortable times this was perhaps understandable, but for a young person who has been ejected from his job part way through an apprenticeship or a skilled worker made redundant after many years of service we must question whether they would they return?

For those that have left the sector the idea that we might be entering a seller’s market in terms of pay and conditions may be offering some comfort but it’s more likely that they have found other employment and are unlikely to return.

Encouraging people back into the industry must rest, at least in part, in addressing the issue of the image of construction.

The image of the industry features heavily in the 10-year joint-strategy developed   by the industry and government – ‘Construction 2025’. 

That reputation has achieved such prominence in this document must be seen to be recognition at the most senior level that unless this issue is addressed then the best laid plans may falter.

Skills shortage

Is this all sabre rattling? I think not. Fear of skill shortages has hit its highest level for six years in the second quarter of 2014 with 51 per cent of firms saying that there are insufficient workers to meet demand against further growth in construction output, with a net balance of 41 per cent of firms reporting increased output in the second quarter of 2014, according to RICS UK Construction survey.

We also note that 182,000 jobs are thought to be needing to be filled 2018 (Parliamentary commission 2014) across what is a very diverse industry. The competition for the talent we need is strong.

However, it is not only a matter of how many workers we need but a review of what it is they will study. Recent research tells us that only 40 per cent of respondents to a recent CIPHE and SUMMIT skills report think current vocational qualifications are fit for purpose.

While many of these figures are for the construction sector any idea that building services is somehow immune to this situation must be firmly quashed.

The need to ‘re-invigorate the image of the industry’ and ‘to work together to inspire young people’ is emphasised in Construction 2025. 

The challenge is how this is done in a consistent and effective way. The many excellent events attended by individual firms in schools and colleges up and down the nation bear testament to industry interest, but without a concerted high-profile campaign it is unlikely that great  strides will be made.

Clearly the agenda for training and development and for attracting workers is complicated, however it isn’t new. What is new is the speed at which the crisis is rushing towards us and without active, concerted efforts on behalf of the building service industry the recovery will be stifled.

There is good news around initiatives such as the apprentice trailblazer programme.

Similarly work supporting the growth of the women in construction and engineering programmes is progressive. But more needs to be done and it’s only by working together that we will achieve this.

Julia Evans is chief executive at BSRIA

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