Comment – Opportunity could slip through industry’s fingers

It was once said that there are two certainties in life: Death and Taxes. However, I would like to propose a third: A construction skills shortage.

For as long as I have been writing about all things construction and demolition (33 years, since you asked) I have been reporting upon a skills shortage within the sector. It is a shortage that has never gone away; that has never been addressed. Even during periods of recession, companies have struggled to fill vital job roles with suitably qualified personnel.

You can, of course, blame Brexit and the return home of a great many migrant workers to Eastern Europe and beyond. Alternatively, you could blame the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent hokey-cokey that saw us in and out of lockdown (though I do not recall much in the way of shaking it all about). B

But, as I said, the skills shortage is hardly a new invention.

However, if you think it’s bad right now – and, believe me, it is VERY bad indeed – it is about to get a whole lot worse. And our past failure to address that perennial skills shortage could see money slipping through our collective fingers.

It was reported this week that the number of vacancies in the past quarter (37,000+) had hit an all-time high; and all-time high that surpasses the previous high that was recorded in the previous quarter.

That announcement came in the same week that the UK Government announced that it has earmarked a staggering £650 billion to improve the nation’s infrastructure as part of its Infrastructure Pipeline initiative.

If you listened carefully, you might have heard a collective rubbing together of industry hands at the prospect of a £650 billion bonanza in the decade ahead.

However, that sound was mostly drowned out by an equally collective sharp intake of breath. Because the Government’s pronouncement came with the news that the construction sector would require an additional 425,000 additional workers to bring this little lot to fruition. And, just to be clear, that is 425,000 workers EACH YEAR.

Allow me to put that into some context. The HS2 high speed rail project is currently the largest construction contract in the UK and one of the largest in Europe. It is a project that has received Royal Ascent, and it has been the focal point of Boris Johnson’s “build back better” campaign. It has received almost endless levels of publicity and been the subject of an unstoppable flow of positive news placement. It has been used as a beacon; a glimmering lure to attract people into the industry. And it has been comparatively successful in doing so, creating and filling more than 20,000 jobs in just 12 months.

However, the Government’s Infrastructure Pipeline is expected to get underway in just three years’ time. Which means that the sector has to find more than 21 times more new workers than HS2 has managed to secure.

Coincidentally, the news of the need for a veritable deluge of new workers dropped at roughly the same time that the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) looked set to be granted yet another three years in which to levy the industry and to once again fail to deliver sufficient new workers into the sector.

I will set aside my own personal feelings about the CITB, about the fact that it is top-heavy, demonstrably inefficient and barely fit for purpose. That, sadly, is common knowledge.

So, with all that being said, the identifying, attracting, recruiting and training of almost half a million new workers will fall to the industry itself.
The construction (and, by association, demolition) industries will need to make their own luck. And the clock is ticking. We have just three years in which to redraw the public perception of an entire industry sector; changing it from the cold, wet and potentially dangerous Hell-hole it is perceived to be and presenting its true face as a dynamic business filled with endless opportunities and some serious money to be earned.

Experience suggests that there is often a disconnect between what the Government promises and what it actually delivers. There is a very real chance that £650 billion might prove to be as flimsy and as forthcoming as the £350 million weekly post-Brexit cash injection promised – one the side of a bus – to the National Health Service.

The good news is that the industry has just one obstacle to overcome in order to access that potential windfall.

The bad news is that it is an obstacle that has proved insurmountable for at least three decades and probably even longer.