Speaking on The Leaders Council Podcast, Graham Hasting-Evans, CEO of education and skills charity NOCN Group, discusses the drivers behind the current skills shortage in construction and how education and training reforms could help tackle the issue.
The skills shortage in construction is a longstanding problem and the scale of it has reached a stage where it simply cannot be ignored. According to forecasts made by the Construction Skills Network [CSN] that were published by the CITB back in June last year, the sector will need to recruit just short of a further 217,000 new workers if it is simply to meet demand.
Analysing the ongoing skills shortfall and the factors behind the issue, Hasting-Evans told podcast host, Scott Challinor, that for too long the construction industry has been too reliant on importing talent from abroad to plug the labour gap, and that the advent of Brexit had now closed off this option.
Hasting-Evans said: “I think there are two major things behind the skills shortfall in construction in this country. One is clearly because of Brexit, since a large number of people that worked in the industry have now returned to their countries of origin, predominantly in Eastern Europe. I started in the industry 50 years ago, and even then we were reliant on foreign labour and it has always been from my experience a systemic problem within the industry to attract enough recruits from the UK.”
Sharing his view on the second main driver behind the skills shortage, Hasting-Evans pointed out that the negative perceptions of the industry among young people was a factor in preventing fresh talent from coming into the sector.
He explained: “Another factor is that construction isn’t seen as a particularly attractive industry to work in. So, it's always been very difficult to encourage new recruits to enter the sector, which is a bit of a surprise in the sense that it is actually a very well-paid occupation.”
Discussing his thoughts on where the negative perception originates from, Hasting-Evans suggested that ministers and the industry ought to consider exploring how the sector is portrayed in educational institutions, as well as placing more value and emphasis on vocational skills rather than solely academia.
“I think a lot of the negative perception goes back to the information that young people get at school and we need to tackle some of the issues around that. We need to look at the portrayal of the sector in schools and in education and understand why it is coming across as an unattractive industry to go into. This is something the CITB and other bodied have done a lot of work on to try to tackle but we’ve ever really quite got there, so we need a revised effort to encourage people because it is a great industry to come and work in.
“There is a big demand in the industry and a real requirement for investment in the infrastructure of our country. There’s demand for improving roads, improving rail, improving airports, improving the quality of our housing, and making the whole of our offices and housing compatible with Net Zero requirements. High demand coupled with lack of recruits is creating this skills gap that we’re seeing at all levels within the industry.
“One of the big problems we have got, and I spoke at the annual apprenticeship conference over this very point, is that these types of practical skills needed in our industry aren't valued. We put too much value on academic skills, and not enough on these practical skills. But our country needs these practical skills, our economy needs these skills, not just in construction, but in retail, hospitality and more. There are other sectors other than ours that need them. But we are too academically focused, unlike Northern Europe and Eastern Europe, where practical skills are valued as highly, if not more highly than academic skills. We need to change that paradigm within the UK.”
When asked to offer his thoughts on whether existing government policy and schemes were effective enough in enticing fresh talent into the industry, Hasting-Evans put forward the view that apprenticeships and training need to broaden their target audience and focus on making skills learning accessible to an older demographic, rather than focusing solely on young people.
Hasting-Evans elaborated: “A strategic effort is needed to tackle the problem and although the government has some good policies, I don’t think they’re doing what is necessary to really address the skills problems within the construction. Solutions are too academically based, they don’t understand the needs of the sector and we will continue seeing this problem unless there’s a radical change both in how we educate young people to get into the sector, but also how we facilitate adults transferring into the industry from other sectors.
“There is a large proportion of people that enter construction who are adults, and they're coming from other sectors. We don't have a viable way of training these people to allow them to move across industries easily. We talk about ‘levelling-up’ and about ‘building back better’, but our system of apprenticeships and funding doesn’t support that process very well. We need radical change in government policy not just in education but also in levelling-up.
“For example, at NOCN Group we were involved in the Level One occupational traineeship, which is actually a brilliant programme, but unfortunately funding stops for trainees at age 24. So, if you're young person, it’s fine. But, if you're an adult, it becomes prohibitive. We need to make policies work to enable us to tap into the older demographic. We currently don’t have the policies or the funding mechanisms to support this, and the apprenticeship levy for another example is more focused on just getting a young person into their first job in the main, rather than addressing the wider issue. Most policy is aimed at 16-to-24s, and we need to look further than that.”
Offering his own solutions to address the enduring problem, Hasting-Evans explained that he would seek to implement a more thorough funding mechanism to facilitate adult training and re-training, and ensure that there were robust training and accreditation programmes to verify that when adults complete their courses, they are work-ready upon entering the industry.
“There are two things I’d do. One is put a proper funding mechanism in place for adults. That could come in the form of a skills tax possibly, because we have seen the amount that employers are willing to spend as a result of the apprenticeship levy coming in. So, maybe we need to encourage firms to train adults in a similar way to young people as the levy encouraged.
“We also need proper training programmes and accreditations that upskill people and I’d actively explore that. At the moment, everything is designed as one massive course that you do for three years at university or two years at college, which is great for young people. However, adults need shorter courses that are compatible with their daily lives and responsibilities. Industry also needs to know that adults will come out of training ready to do the job, so the courses need to be properly assured and certificated. At the minute, young people are coming out of these more academically focused programmes and don’t always possess the skillsets that are required, so we’re going in the opposite direction.
“We aren’t providing the type of modularised training that’s necessary to get an adult into work or to upskill the existing workforce. So, these are the things I’d put on the table to government if I had the chance. At NOCN, I’m pleased to say thar we’re working closely with government and further education to build better bridges between further education and the workplace and make apprenticeships more flexible. We are also making significant investments into supporting work experience that will make it easier for employers to bring in new blood. But we need everyone pulling in the same direction.”
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