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Tackling the skills shortage: Mark Wakeford

It is time for a new approach to tackle the construction industry’s skills shortage

Here we go again. The construction industry picks up after a recession, we are short of skills and everyone is surprised. Quite rightly the industry is responding to this in the time-honoured way of encouraging more people into the industry at apprentice, graduate and mature entry points.

However, it all sounds rather repetitive. Our industry has been here before and we are rolling out the same response, which many cynics would say allows us to train the next cohort in time for the next recession. Given the huge improvements in communications, the obvious needs to upskill everyone within the industry to meet new challenges and opportunities for clients to procure in ways that deliver better value, shouldn’t our industry be looking to tackle the skills crisis in different, more imaginative ways? So, what to do?

There are three discrete areas that construction industry companies must concentrate their efforts.

Firstly, we must focus on beating the causes of the skills shortages. The failure to attract new recruits to our industry is well documented and there are many worthy initiatives run by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and professional organisations that seek to address this imbalance.

Additionally, the industry’s attempts to redress the lack of diversity are to be applauded. These initiatives are excellent in addressing many of the causes of skills shortages at an early stage and commercially astute organisations of all sizes and persuasions are contributing to these efforts in an attempt to secure their workers for the future.

Our second priority should be tackling the symptoms of our skills shortages. There are a huge number of initiatives in hand to increase the number of apprentices and trainee managers within the industry. We are seeing significantly more women and ethnic minorities being targeted to join our industry, recognising the value that they bring to diverse construction teams.

A welcome change is the unrelenting march of apprenticeships and the increasing breadth of recognition within our industry. Creating these alternative routes to professional qualifications is a great way of broadening out the appeal of construction to those who may not have considered construction as a career.

The third action must be to mitigate the shortages as best as we are able. In this crusade there are two principle targets. The first is off-site construction, which is much heralded and provides significant advantages in discrete areas. Clearly if the economies of scale are to work then we will need a significantly higher level of standardisation of common building elements so that we can garner the efficiencies promised within a factory environment.

There is an opportunity to tackle our skill shortage in a new way that will help prevent a future crisis. I suspect that if we tackle the shortage as we always have then we will have the same problem at the next recession. There is a great opportunity with the advances in collaborative tools to train our managers in lean techniques that will reduce the skills deficit and prepare managers for a variety of new business situations as the economy rises and falls.

Mark Wakeford is managing director of Stepnell and on the board of director of the Built Environment Hub

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