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UK and Irish construction skills shortage

How will UK and Irish construction sectors tackle skills shortage?

As cost, project, and program management professionals, Linesight is at the coal face when it comes to attracting the best consultants to our ranks. So, given our role sourcing construction professionals, it comes as no surprise to learn the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) says there is a scarcity of surveyors in the UK.

Similar research conducted by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) in Ireland revealed that over 2,000 new job opportunities are expected to be created across the surveying profession in the next four years. However, based on current enrolment numbers, there will only be enough construction and property related surveying graduates to fill just over half of them (52%).

The shortage of professionals and tradespeople is being felt across the entire construction sector with a consequent knock-on effect on house building and other critical infrastructure requirements.

The skills shortage has also led to construction wages increasing in the UK by 6% in 2015 compared to a national average of 2%. Similarly, in Ireland, the Central Statistics Office reported that the average construction wage increased to €37,884 from €36,230 during 2015, an increase of almost 5%.

Add in the loss of 400,000 workers over the next decade due to retirement in the UK and it becomes evident the skills issue will continue to be a thorn in the side of construction.

From bust to boom

Of course, it’s far better to be in this position than nose diving into another recession. The challenge for governments and industry alike is to manage the gap that exists in the natural cycles of activity in the industry.

In the UK the Government’s house building plans will require a million extra workers according to recruiter Randstand CPE. By 2020 the UK will need 1.98 million house building workers to construct 300,000 homes per year.

In Ireland there are currently 130,000 people employed in the construction sector. This is expected to rise to 170,000 over the next few years, according to the Rebuilding Ireland report . The report aims to deal with Ireland’s housing crisis but also outlines plans to tackle the skills shortage, stating: 'the skills needs of the construction sector has to be met from both mainstream education provision, particularly through apprenticeships, and higher education programs, as well as from targeted initiatives'.

What can be done?

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) in the UK argues that there is no single solution. A number of different education strategies are required, including:

  • Improve the understanding in schools of the exciting and varied opportunities for those who want a career in construction, from traditional crafts, to management, to computer based modelling.
  • Provide comprehensive careers information for all 11 to 14 year olds that promotes the diversity of careers available and the variety of routes to those careers, and includes opportunities to experience life in the construction workplace.
  • Inform teachers and careers guidance councillors about the range of career paths available.
  • Make it easier for young people to find an appropriate route into the industry, whether through apprenticeships or degree level qualifications.

Ireland: same issues on a different scale

By the middle of 2016 there were over 130,000 people working in the Irish construction sector. The industry has been adding jobs at a rate of about 1,000 per month since the end of 2014.

Although employment levels hover at 50% of the peak figure (274,000 in 2007) Construction 2020, the Government’s strategy to 'kick-start' the construction sector, states that a further 60,000 professionals and tradespeople will be required to achieve a sustainable construction sector - which it puts at 12% of GDP.

Just like the UK, cost managers are in particular demand while in the trades, bricklayers, plasterers, and decorators are in short supply. Semi-skilled workers like steel fixers, concrete workers, and dry liners are also scarce.

The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) is predicting that, as an industry looking to ramp up to an annual housing output of 25,000 by 2021 combined with the equally challenging objective of delivering €27 billion in infrastructure projects, a significant skills shortage in the sector within five years is inevitable.

What’s the solution?

The CIF is engaging with Government jobs agency SOLAS on a number of innovative approaches to upskill people who are currently unemployed and get them on sites as quickly and safely as possible.

Another Government initiative, Springboard, provides free part-time higher education courses to enable unemployed people who have lost jobs in sectors where employment levels will not return, to up-skill or re-skill in areas where there are identified skills shortages or employment opportunities.

Construction related Springboard courses have accounted for 940 places in 2015 and a further 246 this year. However, primarily due to the improving employment situation, only 35% of the 2015 places were filled. These numbers can be linked to the poor promotion of construction as a suitable career choice. Improved promotion needs to be undertaken by all vested interests.

Other solutions to Ireland’s skill shortage are similar to the UK, albeit on a smaller scale. Employer bodies are calling for an increase in the number of apprenticeship programmes, including employer-based initiatives aimed at attracting more young people to the sector.

Promoting construction as a career where you can develop your digital skills is vital, particularly when we have a generation growing up as 'digital natives'. We need to inform them about the opportunities in Building Information Modelling (BIM) and other virtual technologies. They need to be made aware that a satisfying career with continuing professional development and training and significant opportunities for advancement is here for the taking.

As traditional ideas around retirement change we need to ask what is the construction sector’s attitude to workers remaining on past 60 or 65. Is it feasible for older workers to remain on site or will the increasing digitization of the sector allow for office based workers to continue working?

Finally, construction is a cyclical sector. We have to accept that the industry will go through peaks and troughs with a consequent effect on graduate and employment numbers.

Key Takeaways

  • According to the Future Homes Commission , the UK will require 1.98 million construction workers to build the required 300,000 homes per year until 2021. This means the creation of one million new jobs by the end of the decade, including 27,000 bricklayers, 89,000 plumbers, and 100,000 carpenters to construct 300,000 houses every year until 2021. Over 13,000 planners, 28,000 architects, and 30,000 cost managers, as well as 61,000 project managers will be required during the same period.
  • In Ireland, the number of new construction apprentices rose by 660 in 2014, with over 2,100 new apprenticeship registrations taking place according to figures published by the Construction Industry Federation (CIF). In the UK in 2014 18,000 people commenced construction related apprenticeship courses.
  • Increased training opportunities are seen as vital to attract more people to the industry. The construction industry needs to promote earning potential for jobs within the sector. Public perception remains that construction is poorly paid.
  • According to the Rebuilding Ireland report published in July 2016, apprenticeship registrations in the construction sector are forecast to be over 3,600 by 2018. The UK Government is aiming to have three million people in apprenticeship programs by 2020 but it is unclear how many will be in the construction sector.
In 2001 when the dot com bust occurred, prospective third level students did not choose computing courses on their CAO applications and four years later there was a shortage. It is forecasted that in 2017 only 38 civil engineers will graduate in Ireland which is a direct consequence of the construction crash

Caroline Spillane, Director General, Engineers Ireland


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