Skills Shortage in the Construction and Demolition Industry

Global skills shortages have been discussed for a long time, and not just in the demolition industry. Across most developed economies, populations are ageing and therefore so is the talent pool.

 

In the United Kingdom, the 2011 census stated that 20% of construction workers were at least 55 years old. Ten years on, and with the 2021 census taking place as this issue of D&Ri was going to press, they will be approaching retirement. The question is: have they been replaced in the industry, or if not, can they be replaced? In 2019 the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimated an additional 230,000 skilled workers were required to meet demand in the UK2. At the start of 2020, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors called the construction industry’s skills shortage the most severe since 20073. This exodus of skilled talent, at the top end, is compounded by the uptake of technology and automation, which means that increasingly jobs growth tends to favour skilled roles more than unskilled ones. As such there are potentially more barriers to entry than before.

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The term “skills shortage” is not easy to categorise. In its simplest form, the demand for a particular set of skills exceeds the supply of talent that possesses them. However, the issues are usually far more nuanced. Shortages can be volume related in nature. During sudden or particularly sustained growth, the number of roles simply outstrips available talent. However, this can often be addressed with migrant and overseas talent. Other shortages can be brought on by external factors, as we have recently with restrictions of movement brought on by Covid-19, or – in the case of the UK – Brexit. For instance, in 2018 10% (roughly 84,000) of roles in the UK construction of buildings sub sector were filled by European Union nationals4. Of particular concern is where a consistent shortage occurs in certain hard to fill, and often key, roles in niche areas. This suggests a lack, or a perceived lack of specific skills in the talent market. As skills take a long time to acquire this highlights gaps in the pathway that have existed for some time and are often systemic.

The effects of skills shortages are not felt equally. They vary nationally, regionally and within industries. Knowledge intensive industries tend to suffer more as skill acquisition is usually a slow process and talent cannot be immediately replaced when it leaves the industry. Generally, larger companies who can afford to invest more in talent strategy and internal learning and development infrastructure suffer less than small and medium-sized enterprises. With a greater ability to train and upskill employees, can often recruit from a wider candidate pool as well as offering a far more appealing financial package to keep them on the staff. In any sustained shortage, this tendency could have an impact for niche sectors such as demolition and recycling, where companies are smaller. The demolition sector is blessed that it usually has more direct employment than contract or agency staff, so it suffers less during recessions and tends to have better in general at keeping staff and their much-needed skills within the sector. This does however throw up the potential pitfalls of retaining the same staff for longer and limiting opportunities to develop new staff entering the trade. This places the emphasis on employers to proactively upskill, develop, and utilise their staff.

The obvious most shortage is in technical skills. For instance, there has been a well-publicised dearth of engineers for some time, and any vocation requiring prolonged or expensive study can put off potential entrants, while the rapid growth in technology and its application across industries has seen talent and skills struggle to keep pace. Governments and organisations have acted to address this, but it could be argued at the expense of more traditional skills and industries. Employers often highlight a lack of “soft skills” in candidates. This encompasses communication, leadership, relationships, and the ability to manage time and prioritise tasks. These are key skills almost regardless of role and are usually innate or developed at a younger age so if they are lacking, this challenge needs to be addressed by school education. This highlights another deeper systemic issue. Employers and industries also need to be proactive in sourcing and attracting talent with these skills, especially at entry level.

The other key area frequently affected by shortages is management, where employers often highlight a lack of experience in candidates. With a top-heavy workforce part of the challenge is that opportunities to develop and progress have not been available for a long time. In this situation, skills wastage often occurs, when skills are not effectively utilised in the workplace, leading to stagnation and increased turnover. When it comes to replacing key staff, employers find they have often failed to develop those skills internally or lost potential successors, so they must look at the external market where such skills are at a premium, which can often drive salary inflation. From a recruitment perspective we find that employers often look to replace an individual who may have say 10 years’ service with the company. The role they occupy has evolved to suit their specific skills and abilities and their salary has been unaffected by the external market. Expectations can become skewed as employers expect to find the same level of talent for the same price in a market where trends and salaries can be vastly different.

One often cited challenge for the construction industry is attracting younger talent and different demographics. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics the industry dropped from seventh most appealing industry to the 22 to 29 age group in 2011 to 12th six years later. It is estimated that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees make up less than 12% of the UK construction industry and women around 12%6. It has for some time struggled with traditional perceptions of the industry not helped by a well-publicised technology lag, which it is now coming out of. The uptake of new methods across equipment, automation and modelling is helping to provide new opportunities in the industry and improve perception. However, attracting talent will remain a challenge as the industry struggles to stand out against other sectors. One key challenge is that education has been evolving away from more traditional vocations. A brief look at the University Technical College website – which represents 48 establishments across the UK – sees construction at the bottom of the specialisms page, below engineering, digital, design, sciences and health.

How can the demolition sector and the wider construction industry meet these challenges? There is a crucial role to be played by organisations such as the National Federation of Demolition Contractors in Britain and the National Demolition Association in the USA. The profile of the sector and awareness of the opportunities it offers need to be promoted. Employers need to pay attention to recruitment and retention strategies, and equally they need to potentially need to be casting a wider net with more attention to transferable skills over experience where possible and sourcing from a wider pool than has been the case. One positive to take from the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has the potential to drive significant change within the industry. As companies have been forced to plan differently and be more flexible, certain methods and the roles they rely on are almost certain to evolve. At the same time is has forced an uptake in technology at a faster rate than would previously have been expected which is likely to continue to some extent and will undoubtedly change impact further on traditional roles and processes.

One area where activity remains high is in surveying and tendering, with an increased use of drones and 3D modelling for site assessment and planning proving the industry’s ability to adapt and evolve and open new specialisations and broadening the appeal of the sector. Gaps in education also need to be proactively addressed. Whilst traditional pathways are available such as through the CCDO card scheme and now a master’s degree in Demolition at the University of Wolverhampton, there needs to be a more sustained and integrated approach. Examples do exist, in Australia the state government of Queensland introduced as far back as 2002 a set of Skills Formation Strategies in its vocational education and training to address sustained skills shortages. It moved away from a supply side up approach to the problem and worked with stakeholders to develop industry led strategies to ensure learning and development that was flexible and able to meet the evolving needs of industry.7 This is particularly key in potentially niche technical sectors such as demolition. Where every site can be vastly different depending on conditions and age of buildings, education and pathways need to be capable of evolving to meet changing needs and provide relevant practical experience. Systemic changes are not likely to be quick however and so the onus will be on employers to train and develop staff internally to fill their needs and requirements.

Written by Edwin Winton, Senior Consultant, Lawsons Global Recruitment. This article was published in Demolition & Recycling International's March-June issue.