Don't let the skills shortage become a lasting legacy

Twenty years ago the construction industry faced stark warnings that its future success was threatened by a chronic lack of skilled workers.  Both the Latham and Egan reports urged the industry to take action to address the skills gap that would be left by an ageing workforce and lack of young people entering the profession following the early 1990s recession.  Now, two decades on, the construction industry faces the threat of another similar skills shortage, again brought about by the economic instability of a lengthy downturn followed by a period of significant growth.

It is fair to say that skills shortages have been a recurrent problem within the construction industry over the past 30 years.   Even though there has been significant progress with greater investment in training, the introduction of apprenticeship schemes and a growing number of construction colleges, the industry has never managed to fully overcome the skills challenge.  Even back in 2006, when the construction industry was booming and businesses were able to invest in training and apprentices, a CIOB survey found that 88% of respondents had experienced difficulty recruiting craft or trade workers and the majority believed there was still a chronic skills shortage.

The 2008 recession further escalated this problem, with 400,000 job losses in the construction sector and one of the highest redundancy rates of any industry.  Sadly, many good contractors left the industry during the recession and many companies were not able to invest in recruitment or training.  The impact has been particularly felt on the recruitment of young people where apprenticeships have plummeted.  In fact, a cross-parliamentary inquiry found that during 2013 the numbers completing construction apprenticeships fell to just 7,280, half the figure for 2008/9 and yet the same report found there are 182,000 construction jobs that need to be filled by 2018. Worryingly, a recent report by City & Guilds found that 56% of businesses did not plan to take on any apprentices in the next twelve months.

While the  construction industry may be on the road to financial recovery, the downturn has left a lasting impact on skills availability, particularly in crafts and trades like roofing and cladding.  The lengthy financial downturn, followed by rapid building growth, has placed significant demand on roofing and cladding products, as well as skills. This is already starting to have an impact and our customers are telling us that the biggest impact is on labour prices.  Inevitably when roofing and cladding products are in scarce supply, the prices go up and contractors have to balance rising tender costs brought about by an increase in both labour prices and inflation.

This means that the roofing and cladding industry must act now to prevent the skills shortage becoming a lasting legacy.  There is no magic bullet but there are a number of different strategies that contractors, manufacturers and the Government can take to improve the situation.

First of all, more needs to be done to make roofing and cladding careers seem more exciting to young people.  For example, I’m sure many school leavers don’t know that the average starting salary for a roofer is the same as a journalist, or that the future salary expectations are not much different, particularly for highly skilled craftsmen.  We have to improve the understanding in schools about the varied opportunities for those who want a career in construction, from traditional crafts like roofing to management roles and Building Information Modelling.

At the same time, as an industry, we also need to make it easier for young people to find an appropriate route into the profession, whether that is through an apprenticeship, traineeship or degree level qualification.   Although there are apprenticeships available through the CITB and other roofing colleges, currently out of 52 construction specialist apprenticeship vacancies listed on the government’s website, there isn’t a single one for roofing or cladding. Yet there are several vacancies for scaffolders, flooring contractors or brick layers. 

We need to make sure that roofing and cladding opportunities are available and easy for young people to find, otherwise they will simply choose other specialisms which are easier to get into.  In the Budget, the government announced that it will provide an extra £85 million in 2014 and 2015 for more than 100,000 apprenticeship grants to employers.  Manufacturers also need to play a part in this and at the moment, Marley Eternit has six apprentices working at our Keele and Burton factories and a further eight working for Marley Contract Services.

However, it isn’t just young people that need to be targeted, what about those contractors and self employed trades people, who may have left the sector during the recession?  We need to tap into this resource and try and attract skilled workers back into the industry. 

While the Government’s Budget announcement that it will be introducing new laws to shift 200,000 self employed construction workers into direct employment may cause labour price increases, it could also have a positive impact on the skills shortage.  In the late 1990s, it was acknowledged that the growing trend for self employment may actually have been a contributor to the construction skills shortage because it was a disincentive for employers to invest in training.  More direct employment in the industry, while a controversial move, may actually lead to more training and benefit to businesses. 

Roofing and cladding contractors and stockists could also look at the free training courses they can access for existing employees.  For example, at Marley Eternit we offer five different training courses, including roof tile estimating, dry fix roofing systems and rainscreen facades, which are free for our contractor and stockist account customers.  In fact, we trained over 100 people at our purpose built training centre in Burton last year and have decided to extend this by offering courses at our Beenham site in Berkshire and at West Scotland College in Paisley, to make the training more accessible.

These are not short term solutions, it will take time to attract new recruits into the industry and skilled resource back.  Throughout the downturn it has been difficult to invest in training or employing apprentices but in the recovery we should all play our part in order to reduce the likelihood of another skills gap.  Manufacturers and contractors alike should help in skilling up the next generation of roofers and cladding installers and also retraining those that may have left the industry, if we are to prevent the recession from leaving a potentially damaging skills shortage legacy.   

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