Building the Future of Construction

Drawing our employer round table series to a close for the year, we caught up with employers and panel experts in the construction industry. The experts and organisations in attendance were those who have pledged their commitment to finding innovative solutions to the challenges faced by apprentices battling to enter the construction industry.

14 December 2021

The virtual round table event was hosted by Naz Lewis-Humphrey (Industry Manager for Construction, City & Guilds) and Joe Bell (Adult Skills and Employment Partnership Manager, City & Guilds). Our handpicked panellists were invited to offer insight on the changing needs of the sector and, in particular, the need for new approaches to recruiting new talent. We heard from the following:

  • Andy Rayner - Head of Apprenticeships and Early Careers at the Travis Perkins Group
  • Jenny La Rocque - Head of Employer Service for Central and West London, Ingeus UK Ltd

What we uncovered in our discussion was that the skills challenges faced by the construction industry closely mirror those that were discussed in our rail round table just a week before. Speaking of the new City & Guilds course, Ready for Construction, Bell shares, “We’re hoping to be able to work with employers to bust some of the myths about working in construction and to emphasise the opportunities that exist within the sector, including supply chain and administrative roles.”

An industry in crisis – the crippling skills shortage in construction

According to a study of the UK construction skills shortage released by industry training body CITB in June 2021, the sector will need 217 000 new workers, by 2025. This equates to over 50 000 new construction workers per year – currently, we are seeing only 30 000 per year. Pre-dating the impact of COVID-19, as far back as 2008, the ongoing skills shrinkage can be attributed to numerous factors, including:

  • An ageing workforce
  • Skilled workers returning to the EU, due to BREXIT
  • Workers exiting the sector after furlough

With many of these losses inevitable, Andy Rayner comments on the difficulties that employers experience in recruiting and retaining new talent: “We have two key challenges. How do we modernise the industry, and how do we make it attractive? In the first case, what I learned about construction when I was an apprentice is no longer applicable today. We have to modernise the way we build in the UK, which may automatically address the second challenge – by attracting new workers who are skilled in technology, digitisation and green building.”

Rayner believes that the older generation may struggle to solve these problems. Made up of a typically traditionally-skilled workforce, with many heading toward retirement, senior workers are less likely to adapt to modernised building practices – hence, the need for a more diverse talent pool, bringing different ideas, passions and values. Attracting those individuals remains the sector’s most enigmatic challenge, with some of the barriers including:

  • Inaccurate perceptions and lack of diversity – Construction is still viewed as a caucasian male-dominated industry, archaic in technique, and largely manual-labour work. This means that, to younger, more diverse career-seekers, it is not perceived as a viable career option.
  • Apprenticeships on national living wage – According to Jenny La Rocque, speaking about apprentice programs in construction, “We don’t have many young people showing interest in construction. Those who are interested in these apprenticeships are typically 28 years and older. Many already have financial commitments or families, and the national living wage just isn’t feasible for them.”
  • College-imposed entry requirements – There is a gap between applicant qualifications and college requirements, which prevents many from entering college apprenticeships – specifically maths and English.
  • Lack of recognition for skills – Higher-level technical skills are largely overlooked. Although not all workers aspire to progress to management roles, they still need to be recognised and remunerated according to their skills. In construction, there is a tendency to lump all technical skills into one pool.
  • Poor funding in apprenticeships – On one hand, a large portion of the construction industry is made up of SME’s and micro-businesses who cannot afford to offer competitive remuneration to apprentice prospects. What’s more, it’s extremely difficult for learners to progress to Level 3, when their Level 2 government funding dries up. T-level placements are also a cost that employers are unable to bear.
  • Construction industry wages are notoriously low – As a result, skilled workers are able to pursue more lucrative careers in other industries.
  • Decrease in apprenticeships due to levies – Employer attendees at the round table postulate that the apprenticeship levy should be broadened to a training levy,– supply chain employers in particular find apprenticeship too complex and they are disengaging as a result.

Commenting on the industry’s responsibility to work together, Rayner says, “A key lesson here is that if we really want to make a difference and bring young and diverse people into the sector, we have to collaborate. We need the collateral in vacancies to make it work. At Travis Perkins, we’re seeking opportunities to collaborate with other organisations to make construction attractive – we want to think bigger than just our own reach.”

He concludes powerfully: “Together we can make a difference, but individually, it's very hard.”

Boosting apprenticeships to save the sector

Perhaps one of the most important actions discussed at the round table will be to “make construction sexy again”, as one participant so aptly put it. As a start, this could be achieved by applying all efforts on modernising the sector. “Focusing on green building is not an option. It is legislation,” says Rayner, “We have to promote careers in green building. It all depends on how we communicate what the future of building looks like to people who already have green skills who might be considering a career change, or those interested in learning these skills.”

Employers and training providers are encouraged to make use of every resource available to them and to innovate their own solutions where possible. By tapping into government-funded schemes such as Kickstart, or offering their own pre-apprenticeships, organisations can make an impact by attracting graduates from schools and colleges into employment.

Speaking about offering employers more support throughout apprenticeship placement processes, La Rocque says, “There’s room to create employer routeways based on individual criteria. This could be achieved by holding a sector-based work academy, or by helping employers to interview candidates. Employer involvement is crucial. Not only does it boost employer confidence – it grabs the buy-in from the participant, knowing that the employer is fully invested.”

Through the kind of collaboration described by Rayner, and the kind pioneered by City & Guilds and its partnering employers and training providers, the construction industry could see an exciting revival.

Ironing out the funding complexities, re-positioning the industry as an attractive career option for people of all genders and ethnicities, and pushing hard to bring construction conventions into the 21st century will require collective efforts, and reap collective rewards.