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Is Education the Key to Shrinking the UK Skills Shortage?

If you read my blog articles regularly, you will have seen that many of them refer to the current skills shortage in the UK Construction market. My blog last month focussed on one tactic of trying to entice British expatriates back to the UK as a method of easing the pain in the short term.

The skills shortage is a long term problem though, and in the last month or two, construction giants Laing O'Rourke have also had their say on a more long term solution to tackling this problem.

Call for a Construction GCSE & A level Qualification

Laing O'Rourke have called for the introduction of construction GSCE's and A Levels (get their full Skills Report there too). They would like to see the introduction of a Design, Engineer & Construct (DEC) qualification in more schools and colleges up and down the country.

DEC is apparently already a qualification in the current curriculum. Who knew? Only, 42 out a possible 3,401 state funded schools in England offer this as a subject to study. Reports suggest that many universities do not recognise this qualification and that may be part of the problem.

O’Rourke said: “The government has the opportunity to work with the industry to create GCSEs and A-levels in DEC and incentivise schools and colleges to offer them to pupils and students."

“This would boost the appeal of the sector to schools, students, parents, universities and higher education institutions and educate people about the positive reality of a career in modern day construction and engineering.”

Laing O’Rourke’s full Ten-Point Plan is:

  1. Flex the government’s planned Apprenticeship Levy and reduce delays to approval of ‘Trailblazer Apprenticeship’ standards
  2. Create regionally focused skills pipelines
  3. Increase availability of Russell Group university standard part-time degree apprenticeships
  4. Review options for career transitioning apprenticeships
  5. Introduce GCSEs and A-levels in Design, Engineer and Construct (DEC) disciplines
  6. Foster collaboration between industry and government to deliver a broader range of improved careers advice for construction and engineering
  7. Commit the industry to measurable improvements in diversity
  8. Seize the opportunity of the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
  9. Support the creation of a single construction and infrastructure
    skills body
  10. Facilitate the ongoing professional development of a directly employed workforce

Long Term Problem

I commend Laing's for suggesting a long term solution such as introducing a construction qualification. After doing some research into the age of the workforce the most recent statistics I could find, suggested that 22% of construction workers are over 50 and 15% are in their 60's.

This highlights that the skills shortage in the UK will likely only get worse in the coming years unless we make major changes to attract the younger generation to seek qualifications and experience in construction related subjects.

The BIS suggests that the construction industry accounts for approximately 10% of the UK's total employment. That means that we need to be attracting 1 in 10 of future generations in to the industry, and probably more as the industry grows and the population increases.

It's great to hear that so many construction companies and large schemes such as HS2 and Thames Tideway Tunnel are encouraging apprenticeships and actively looking to assist young people to get into construction. HS2 for one are building a specialist construction college in Doncaster as part of their plans to deliver the new High Speed rail network.

Long Term Solution - Changing Perceptions

However, my views are that offering construction courses and apprenticeships to 16+ year olds may not be enough on its own to bridge the gap in the industry. Personally I feel that this needs to be tackled at a younger age. The document produced also highlights this as a real and serious problem.

We need to change society's perceptions of construction if we are going to attract more talent into the sector. Research showed that a career in construction often has negative connotations for youngsters:

  • 67% of members of the public said they would never consider a career in the construction industry
  • 41% of respondents named construction as one of the sectors least likely to require higher / further education
  • 68% viewed the work as 'strenuous'
  • 58% described the work as 'dirty'

I cannot say I'm too shocked by the above results going on my personal experiences of growing up and trying to decide on a career. The only people I knew who worked in construction were labourers and I hadn't even considered the variety of roles in construction. Therefore, it's fair to say my young and ignorant self would have likely answered as per the majority in this survey.

Whether or not a construction related GCSE is feasible or not as part of the mainstream curriculum is to be decided. However, the government and the construction industry as a whole, has a duty to assist in promoting the sector positively so that more of our future generations are aware of the variety of roles and rewards of working in construction.

I believe equal opportunity is also key to solving the problem. The message needs to reach both genders, all abilities, all cultural backgrounds if we are to bridge the skills shortage gap in the long term.

Schemes such as Open Doors are a great step in the right direction. The scheme allows school children and communities to visit live building sites of major projects. You meet the workforce, get a tour around site and generally learn about the different roles on a building site. It's a fantastic way of introducing children to the sector who have little to no experience of the construction industry.

Plant the seed at a young age and watch it grow! The most popular toy in the world is Lego (or at least it was when I was younger), which is effectively construction. Kids love to build things, so let's harness that passion and channel it into them making a living by doing the real thing.

Summary

The skills shortage in construction is potentially a very serious problem that could impact the potential for growth in the industry for years to come. It's key that we recognise this now and start putting targets and schemes in place to ensure that the problem does not get worse. It will be interesting to hear the government’s thoughts on Laing O'Rourke’s proposals as it certainly seems a great step in the right direction.

What are your thoughts on introducing DEC as a more widely studied part of the curriculum? How do you feel we attract more of future generations into construction? Do you know any good schemes currently in place that can be replicated? It's a topic that will not be going away for years to come I feel.

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Stuart Hackett
Senior Recruitment Consultant – UK & Middle East

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