Our winning ways

Construction is on the brink of an unprecedented manpower crisis and yet we’re still not making the sector attractive enough to draw in the high-quality entrants we need. Here’s what we should do …

The construction industry has an image problem and it’s not hard to see why: the sector’s reputation has been tarnished by decades of media coverage shining a light on cowboy builders and their botched jobs, particularly in the domestic market. More recently, media interest in poor workmanship has moved to major housebuilders and developers, which are now facing growing reputational risks driven by a deep-seated capacity and skills crisis.

But that’s only part of the issue – the fact construction has remained so stubbornly in the past because it is reliant on labour-intensive “biblical” techniques, delivered in often difficult conditions with elevated health and safety risks, is an even greater problem when it comes to attracting a generation weaned on technology and with increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

The image problem would be easier to dismiss if the industry wasn’t on the brink of an unprecedented manpower crisis. The figures are well known but no less shocking for that, with the sector needing 700,000 new entrants over the next decade just to replace retiring workers.

The level of further labour force attrition that may be caused by Brexit remains to be seen but could create a resourcing crisis that decimates the industry. Construction’s shrinking workforce and its inability to attract new entrants is ultimately a huge constraint on its output and therefore the wider growth of the British economy: this is an issue of national importance.

It has never been so vital to change the sector’s careers narrative to increase its attraction to youngsters

Reversing years of negative press will be no easy feat, but it has never been so vital to change the sector’s “careers narrative” to increase its attraction to youngsters. This will take concentrated effort from all major stakeholders, focusing on engaging young people by showcasing what a 21st-century construction industry can look like.

Central to this is the urgent need to modernise the construction process. This will not happen at sufficient scale, in my view, by focusing solely on issues such as collaborative working or forcing BIM uptake through a mandating regime. Collaboration and BIM are important enablers, but to an extent have become the “tail wagging the dog”.

It is the move to a whole new delivery model using a spectrum of Design for Manufacture and Assembly-led pre-manufacturing solutions that will drive the horizontal and vertical integration of supply chains we desperately need and accelerate BIM adoption through the attraction of full functionality CAD/CAM interfacing. If you push collaboration or digital technology in isolation from the physical way we build on site, then you will get limited results. You are in effect, putting lipstick on a pig.

Our training structures and courses need to therefore evolve to reflect delivery models that use higher levels of pre-manufactured value. We need to offer young people rebooted training courses combining state-of-the-art virtual learning alongside fit-for-purpose, appropriately staffed and equipped facilities leading to recognised accreditations in traditional craft-based skills as well as pre-manufacture led and hybrid skills.

The industry’s selling points are still weak compared to other career options. Until we face this, we put a glass celing on results

The sector would then present a more attractive career path to a much more diverse audience. What’s more, by showcasing the emerging role of new technologies such as automation, digital engineering, augmented reality and 3D printing within construction, young people and their key influencers, including family, teachers and careers advisers, would see that construction has much more to offer.

The CITB’s recent report, Faster, Smarter, More Efficient: building skills for offsite construction, offers a great blueprint for how this might be rolled out in industry with six functional skills groupings. This should form the basis of a new accreditation framework designed by industry alongside both the further and higher education sectors. In turn it should be linked to an industrialised and less fragmented outreach strategy that tells one version of the truth that kids are more likely to respond positively to.

In terms of public perception changing, the recent Open Doors programme led by Build UK is a great way of raising awareness of what the industry does. My concern, however, is that the industry’s selling points are still weak relative to other career options. Until we face this, we will have put a glass ceiling on what results such campaigns have in attracting the numbers of high-calibre candidates we need.

It is critical to remember we need quality – not just quantity – if we are to modernise the industry successfully.

Through strong personal and corporate leadership, some basic institutional reforms supported by government, and with some positive market disruption added into the mix for good measure, construction can begin its systematic makeover. Ultimately, it is our job, together as an industry, to make sure we get this right – our future depends on it.

Mark Farmer is founding director and chief executive at consultant Cast and author of the industry report Modernise or Die

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