Construction expert warns of ‘skills time bomb’

A construction expert has warned of a ‘skills time bomb’ waiting to explode if the industry does not start looking to the future.

Rob Leslie, a course leader at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment, Robert Gordon University (RGU) and a former Chair of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) in Scotland, believes that a workforce rapidly approaching retirement age combined with a lack of recruitment due to the recession will see the construction industry staring into a skills void in the coming years.

Mr Leslie, who clocked up 40 years of industry experience before becoming a full-time lecturer at RGU in 2010, said:

“In the 1960s and 1970s there was a boom in employment in the construction industry with a big focus on building social housing and major infrastructure projects but over the years, and as a result of the cyclical nature of construction, this has become less and less. The result being that there are a lot of people who came into the industry at that time now approaching retirement age and there just aren’t enough skilled workers to fill that gap.

“While the recession has hit the industry extremely hard there is still an annual recruitment rate of construction managers in the UK of over 3000 according to the latest market research by the Construction Skills Network. The amount of managers that are required, compared with the amount of people retiring and leaving the industry, means there is a skills shortage in that particular role which will only increase in the near future.”

The latest figures from the UK Employment and Skills Almanac 2011 show that in 2010 44% of employees in the construction industry were aged 45 and above – almost a 10% increase from 2002. Meanwhile the number of employees aged 24 and under in the industry, fell from over 13% in 2002 to 9% in 2010.

“There is a clear trend emerging from those figures,” Mr Leslie said. “It shows an ageing workforce, which is not being balanced by the recruitment of younger employees. It is a skills time bomb which will explode as we emerge from recession.”

A report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) released earlier this month also suggests that Scotland’s construction industry may be turning the corner after an extremely difficult few years, with an increase in the number of new projects being reported.

Mr. Leslie is currently spearheading the launch of a new Construction Management course at RGU aimed at commencing in September 2014, which has been developed in consultation with the industry. The revised course also takes cognisance of the new education framework prepared by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) which identifies the skills needed to equip the construction managers of the future.

“We have been engaging with the industry as to what they need and want from graduates, so we can tailor the course to be as relevant as possible to the current marketplace,” he said. “It is hoped that the first graduates from this course will be completing the degree in 2018 so we are encouraging employers to think about what they will require at that point.”

Mr Leslie also strongly believes that companies should be working harder to build more links with students while they are at college or university, offering paid placements on a level with other part-time jobs but giving them vital industry experience.

“You can’t beat hands-on experience,” he said. “It would give the students a feel for the environment they will be working in and an opportunity to enhance and apply their academic learning. This must result in a dual benefit to employers and students alike and is certainly a lot more useful than a similar level of job in an entirely unrelated sector.

“I appreciate that small and medium size businesses (SMEs) are just trying to keep their heads above water at the moment, and I understand and sympathise with that. However, as we move ever closer to the supermarket model where a handful of players control the market – the top 150 construction companies now account for over 80% of the UK workload – the SMEs need to start thinking ahead to what will happen when skills are lost by people leaving the industry to join other sectors, more staff start to retire and there aren’t the people with the required skills to step into the gap.”