Glen Hampson is Business Development Manager, Construction at Kubota UK in this feature for Construction Online he speaks about building the next generation of skilled construction workers.

Despite it being one of the largest sectors of the UK’s economy – and employing 9% of the population – the construction industry is currently under a lot of strain. With political events – such as Brexit, cultural changes – such as a renewed focus on higher education, and of course the current pandemic taking its toll, fewer and fewer talented individuals are finding themselves attracted to a career in construction.

Recent research discovered that only one in ten children between the ages of 16 and 18 would consider joining the industry, fearing that it would be ‘challenging and unexciting’. It’s clear that UK constrction needs an urgent revamp in order to survive.

Unless steps are taken now to combat the ongoing skills shortage, the industry – and therefore the UK’s economy – is likely to be impacted well into the future.

Weathering the COVID-19 storm

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on the construction industry in recent months. Whilst the sector initially faced uncertainty, as sites closed and some employees were put on furlough, it has now become a crucial part of the government’s recovery plan.

In a statement last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged an immediate £5bn package of capital investment in infrastructure projects – including the building of new hospitals, schools and roads. Titled ‘Project Speed’, this initiative highlights the important role that construction is set to play in helping the nation recover from the impact of the crisis and reviving the UK’s economy moving forward.

But, whilst many in the industry view this as a positive step in the right direction, some critics of the scheme have highlighted that in order to fulfil its promise there will need to be a bigger recruitment push than ever before.

Laying the educational foundation

Last year, the Civil Engineering Contractors Association’s chief executive Alasdair Reisner, called for the industry and the government to work together to boost recruitment and training in the UK’s construction sector. This is something that rings even more true today, in our COVID-19 climate. If companies working across the sector are able to provide the schemes and the experience needed to excel in a career in construction, and if the government is able to support them in doing this, the skills shortage will no doubt, reduce.

Programmes and apprenticeship schemes that offer real hands on experience and placements within the wider industry must be encouraged and supported. Only 694 construction, planning and the built environment apprenticeships were started in March 2019, which is a reduction by almost half compared to the previous year. It’s essential that we try and increase this figure moving forward.

For many, an apprenticeship scheme will act as an introduction to the industry and showcase how beneficial a career in construction could be. For example, the majority of school-leavers, wrongly, assume that construction work is simply made up of traditional practices and methods. They are often more attracted to pursuing a career in technology.

But the reality is that modern technologies such as AI, virtual reality and even 3D printing are increasingly becoming a part of the construction industry. Although they’re not commonplace just yet, each apprenticeship scheme should try and expose its students to some aspect of the latest technological advancements being utilised within the industry, to showcase just what the future might hold. This will make it a more exciting, attractive career prospect for both junior talent as well as those looking to move from another industry.

A new positive image

As well as offering the latest apprenticeships and training opportunities, those within the industry need to change the perception of construction work at a wider scale. The benefits of a career in construction are clear, but they also need to be shouted about.

It’s a highly valued sector within the wider UK economy – even more so, given its new standing in the COVID-19 recovery plan. There is no shortage of jobs and there is a huge potential for professional growth. In fact, for specialist roles – such as operators – the pay is extremely competitive. Add to this that transferable skills from a wide range of other backgrounds are welcome and it’s easy to see that construction could be a really fulfilling profession that will last a lifetime.

But government and construction businesses need to ensure that these positive messages are being heard by potential talent. In order to do this, uncertainty in the industry must be reduced. Part of this means offering more protection to workers – perhaps through the reduction of zero-hour contracts or paid apprenticeships. It is only then that old perceptions can be shattered and the true potential of a career in construction can shine through.

Inspiring the next generation

Every industry needs new talent to innovate and survive. As the construction sector strives to boost productivity and drive growth to recover from the recent crisis, attracting new workers will be vital.

Each and every one of us operating within the industry has a responsibility to plug the skills gap and inspire the next generation. The government must provide backing at an educational level and also promote the industry through investment in infrastructure projects. Construction businesses must invest in apprenticeship schemes and continue to train their employees in the latest technological advancements. Individually, we must all work together to transform the traditional image of construction as an outdated industry.

We’re currently experiencing turbulent times but, with the construction industry set to play a key role in the country’s economic recovery, there has never been a better time to close the skills gap. By taking action now we can look forward to a brighter future.

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