Is the government’s tech fixation clouding the real skills crisis?

Michael Doolin is group managing director of consultancy Clover HR

Addressing the UK’s ever-growing skills gap must be at the top of the next government’s priority list because a failure to do so would have a huge impact on the growth of the UK economy and the competitiveness of so many great British businesses. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s focus, however, appears to be on safeguarding the UK’s technology industry, demonstrated recently by its £490m investment in high-level science, technology, maths and engineering teaching, and “world class” facilities for universities and colleges.

UK infrastructure is as important as tech, if not more so, and demands bridging skill gaps in the construction industry

While technology should be championed and is a huge revenue and skills generator, it often feels that the push to make the UK the next Silicon Valley is at the expense of some of our other, equally important industries, such as construction.

Despite the government’s promise to invest in major construction developments by 2027, which the Construction Industry Training Board estimates will require an additional 225,000 workers, little has been done to promote the industry as an attractive career choice, especially for young people. As a result, the construction industry faces a monumental skills gap.

To reverse this trajectory, the industry must itself change the narrative around construction so that more people want to become a part of it and benefit from the rewarding professional development it provides.

Expanding talent pools

In a survey of people aged 18-29, sponsored by NBS, an online global platform of information for specifiers and the construction sector, the perceptions were of an industry that was dirty and manual (52 per cent), dangerous (37 per cent) and sexist (33 per cent).

Positive steps are already underway to address this perception, for instance, there are organisations aimed at supporting the progression of women in the construction industry such as Women into Construction.

However, the industry must go even further to support and promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce. For example, it is estimated that there will be an influx of climate refugees over the next 25 years, who will make up a significant proportion of working-age people in the UK. Investing in more initiatives to welcome refugees into the industry would be an effective means of addressing the skills gap.

In 2020, The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) reported that one in four construction workers consider suicide and that 56 per cent of construction professionals work for organisations with no mental health policies. This is extremely concerning. 

By implementing simple changes such as organising team social events and hosting regular employee wellbeing and progression meetings, businesses can create a supportive work environment that fosters social connections and ultimately mitigates feelings of isolation. This, in turn, increases employee engagement, as workers who feel valued will enjoy their work, which also strengthens their sense of loyalty and value towards their employer.

HR can be a useful resource to facilitate open communication channels, such as regular check-ins, feedback sessions and even anonymous suggestion boxes, allowing employees to voice their concerns and feel heard, valued and part of your team.  

Helping employees step onto the career ladder

There are many misconceptions about career opportunities in the construction industry. A study by the CIOB on ‘The real face of construction’ noted that more than half of its participants (57 per cent) believed the average annual earnings in construction to be far lower than the true figure. The research also flagged concerns regarding equal pay, career progression and retention. This stigma has caused many people to ignore the potential for career advancement within the industry.

To challenge this misconception, construction companies must invest in the upskilling and development of their teams. By providing training and regular meetings, personal development plans, management training and courses, as well as regular check-ins and goal-setting, businesses can develop a highly skilled, motivated and retained team.

Society needs to recognise that while we build a tech ‘smart’ Britain, the development of UK infrastructure is equally important, if not more so, and demands bridging skill gaps in the construction industry.

Contractors cannot wait for the government to act and must take action themselves. That means championing apprenticeships, creating opportunities for those who never considered a career in construction and, most importantly, adopting tried-and-tested HR practices that ensure people not only want to work in the industry, but remain in it.

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