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Skills shortage threatens major construction projects as report raises fears

Major infrastructure projects are threatened by the UK’s skills shortage, with a quarter of a million existing workers needing retraining and a gap of 100,000 workers over the next five years, according to a new government-backed report.

The National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, published by Infrastructure UK, sets out concerns in major sectors like roads, rail and energy amid fears that major projects will be affected.

The report found that through growth in infrastructure investment, there was a demand for over 250,000 construction and over 150,000 engineering construction workers by 2020, with a shortfall of nearly 100,000 additional workers by the end of the decade.

This will also mean a need to retrain and up-skill around 250,000 of the existing workforce over the next decade in addition to the need to recruit new workers.

Programmes like HS2 and increased investment in roads will put further stress on the industry’s capacity to deliver, the report found.

It said that as well as a deficit of skilled engineering construction workers, the railway industry faces challenges recruiting experienced managers in both project and commercial teams, with HS2 demand amplifying the problem.

Regional breakdown:

Northern powerhouse: Current workforce 85,000 / Skills peak 99,000 / Skills gap 14,000 (16%)

South-west: Current workforce 29,800 / Skills peak 33,400 / Skills gap 3,600 (12%)

East of England: Current workforce 24,300 / Skills peak 27,600 / Skills gap 3,300 (14%)

The Midlands: Current workforce 43,700 / Skills peak 56,600 / Skills gap 12,900 (30%)

London and the South-east: Current workforce 108,800 / Skills peak 124,500 / Skills gap 15,700 (14%)

It added that increased investment will place “a considerable burden on plant, labour and materials nationally and regionally”.

The report said: “While the UK construction sector faces challenges in terms of attracting new entrants, the issue is particularly acute for roads.

“A perception of an often unfavourable working environment near live traffic, and the requirement for much work to be carried out at times when the road network is least busy make it difficult to make a positive case for careers in the sector. This is compounded by a lack of clear guidance on entry routes for those that decide to join the industry

Among the steps taken to address the concerns over skills was the appointment of Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan to develop a transport and infrastructure skills strategy, to help the transport industry ensure a continuous pipeline of skilled workers

The report also recommends that regional skills pipelines should consider skills demand from both economic infrastructure and social infrastructure works such as housing and construction of schools, hospitals and commercial developments.

The Infrastructure UK work pipeline has received criticism in the past for not including housing, given the desperate shortage of supply versus demand for new and affordable homes.

The report also advocates the need for clients to work together to “identify opportunities for skills to develop and transfer between projects”.

It called for simplification of the current system of skills passports and competency cards, with “clear thresholds for transferable basic level qualifications to minimise need for duplicative retraining”.

The report also references Construction News’ Barometer for Q3 2014 which found that 97 per cent of respondents were concerned about a lack of skills and staff.


Commercial secretary to the Treasury Lord O’Neill said: “This report is just the first step in addressing how we can work with industry to ensure our workforce’s competitiveness for the future.

“We’ll now develop a clear action plan, set to not only strengthen the economy by delivering our most ambitious projects from transport to energy, but improve the quality of citizen’s lives too.”

Richard Threlfall, head of infrastructure at KPMG UK, said the report was one “the industry cannot not ignore”.

“It forces the construction industry to look beyond the current skills crisis to the long-term need to invest in its people, get serious about apprenticeships, and to re-train and diversify its workforce”.

“The recent UK Industry Performance Report revealed that construction employees on average are receiving only 1.2 days of training in a year. We need an entirely different mind-set in the industry if we are to meet the challenge which Infrastructure UK has identified.”

CECA chief executive Alasdair Reisner said: “CECA welcomes this mapping document as a resource for industry to prepare for the substantial amount of working coming online over the next few years. However, we can only meet the anticipated skills demand with the right environment.

“To this end CECA feels that this better visibility of skills demand should work hand-in-hand with a policy environment that encourages companies to invest in these skills. 

According to the CITB, Experian, Infrastructure UK analysis, more than 500,000 people will be needed in the industry by 2039 based on projected workforce, but that could rise to almost 600,000 if average growth of 1.8 per cent is recorded, compared to around 500,000 if 1 per cent growth, or low growth is recorded.

Retirement and people leaving the industry continues to cause concern.

In power, for example, an estimated 50 per cent of current employees are set to leave the sector and 200,000 new recruits will be needed by 2023.

In rail, 20 per cent of the workforce is over the age of 55 and 25 to 30 per cent of the traction, rolling-stock and electrification workforce will leave in the next five years.

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