After a year of consultation and careful consideration, the Building the Future Commission has published its final report. In this final chapter, Dave Rogers considers the challenge of building a skilled workforce to do increasingly complex jobs – and then keeping them happy
Construction firms are in a battle for skills. They are not just competing with rivals, they are also coming up against most other sectors in the UK economy as they find that the number of overall workers has shrunk in the wake of Brexit and tighter immigration rules.
>> Download the full commission report: The long-term plan for construction
Recruitment is commonly reported as a priority for businesses, and arguably it should be a construction boss’s number one priority because without the right people none of the industry’s other strategic goals – such as digital transformation, modern methods of construction or net zero buildings – are going to be possible.
The skills and labour problems the industry faces
The number of extra workers needed by the industry has been put at 45,000 per year between 2023 and 2027, according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and the Construction Skills Network.
The fastest growth will be in infrastructure and housebuilding, with a rising contribution from repairs, maintenance and improvement, as retrofit to existing buildings becomes more important. Finding people with the right skills for these areas presents significant challenges for the industry.
In part, this is about plugging current skills gaps, such as bricklayers and dryliners, but the industry must also invest in leadership and management, digital skills, and skills related to energy efficiency, to boost productivity and to address growing challenges such as net zero carbon emissions and building safety.
This represents a huge opportunity for construction to modernise, attract a more diverse talent pool and upskill its existing workforce – because the industry is still seen as too white and too male and not appealing to younger people. There are also ongoing perceptions that it is dirty, dangerous and inflexible when it comes to working hours.
OTHER CHAPTERS FROM THE REPORT
It is estimated by the CITB that the UK’s construction workforce will reach 2.84 million by 2025 (as of the second quarter of 2023, there were approximately 2.15 million people).
Construction needs to attract talented people in both trade and office-based roles and to make joining the industry more accessible, particularly for people from other sectors in the economy who want to take advantage of opportunities. Equally, it is crucial that the industry retains its existing skills.
These challenges have been made more acute following Brexit. According to data collected by the Construction Products Association, the number of European Union-born workers in the UK construction industry dropped by more than a quarter in 12 months. In the third quarter of 2020, there were 127,000 EU-born workers in the industry, down from 176,000 recorded in the same period in 2019. Many have gone back home to their place of birth and not subsequently returned.
In many of our consultation events with panels and our young advisers the suggestion was repeatedly made that the construction industry needs to promote itself better through a range of media, including a high-profile TV campaign similar to ones promoting careers in the Armed Services.
Women in construction
The industry has to appeal to people who have previously been under-represented in it. There is evidence some things are improving. Women now make up a higher proportion of the construction workforce than at any time since official records began.
The construction workforce was 15.8% female in April to June 2023, up 1.2% on the previous quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. Around 340,000 women were recorded as working in the construction industry in the second quarter of 2023, an increase of 41,000.
However, the higher level of women is partly explained by a decrease in the number of men working in the industry over the past few years. Around 1.8 million men were employed in the construction industry in the second quarter of 2023, which is 200,000 fewer than in the first three months of 2020 – with the fall in part due to the number who have retired from it.
So, what do the official figures show? An increase in the number of women working in the construction sector, but an industry that is still overwhelmingly male.
The Chartered Institute of Building says only about 2% of women working in construction work on site. There are reports from those working in the industry about the lack of female-sized PPE available, and non-male toilets being locked where workers need to ask for a key from a male supervisor because the space is being used to store equipment.
The pace of change is slow and there is more that can be done, and not just by women for women
There is also evidence that women from ethnic-minority backgrounds face additional barriers as they can often experience a mix of sexism and racism at work and have cited that their complaints have not been taken seriously.
In the last decade or so it has, however, been encouraging to see a plethora of initiatives, organisations and groups that provide advice, guidance, training and support to women at different stages in their careers. There are now many more high-profile women in senior positions who are acting as mentors for younger generations just starting out, which should help more women progress to the top.
But the pace of change is slow and there is more that can be done, and not just by women for women. Increasingly there is a recognition this is not a “women’s issue”; it is a business issue. It does not make business sense to see well-qualified female employees drop out of full-time work after having their first child, as 85% of women do in the UK, according to Careers After Babies. Equally, there is a good business case for supporting the three in five women with menopausal symptoms at work who might otherwise quit at the peak of their careers.
Anecdotally we have also found that a stereotypical “macho” culture that is offputting to women does still exist in some parts of the industry. Employers can do a lot to raise awareness through workshops and internal education initiatives that ultimately empower men and women to call out unacceptable behaviour in the workplace when it happens.
Sensible policies regarding flexible work for men and women need to be driven by the leadership in organisations and combined with practical measures and support to ensure that good intentions have positive outcomes for all employees.
Better understanding the issues faced by ethnic-minority employees
Black, Asian and other ethnic-minority employees make up just 6% of the workforce. That is an improvement of sorts: Building’s 2019 diversity survey noted that just 4% of workers in the UK construction industry were from a minority ethnic background.
Our findings also revealed that 58% of black construction professionals did not feel secure in their jobs, compared with 41% of white construction professionals. And some 76% of black construction professionals felt that their chance of finding a job was lower because of their ethnicity.
The benefits of a diverse workplace have been researched, identified and proven. They include improved team performance, an easier hiring and retention process, greater creativity, a better understanding of customers and an improved brand.
She personally feels diversity on company boards should be mandated by the government
Racism experienced today is not always as overt as it has been in the past, and this can mean it is easier to ignore. Diversity and inclusion policies must avoid being tick-box exercises. Company boards must take ownership and accountability for driving change. Quotas may be controversial in some quarters, but companies that are making progress do set themselves targets and keep track on how diverse their workforce is. The most transparent organisations share this information with others.
There is also an awareness that business success is linked to having diverse boards, although organisations such as Black on Board that advise on these issues warn against tokenistic appointments which could result in just one black board member on an otherwise all-white board.
Lara Oyedele, Black on Board’s founder and one of our commissioners, believes strongly that companies need to prioritise ethnic diversity on boards as part of their equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategies, and that one measure that makes a huge difference is to provide training to prepare people from ethnic-minority backgrounds to join boards. She personally feels diversity on company boards should be mandated by the government and, while that seems unlikely to happen under this government or the next, business leaders should be asking themselves what they can do to bring about change.
If the playing field is not level for a whole range of people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act, then it is in the interests of industry leaders to create opportunities for all.
Wellbeing and flexible working
The industry’s demanding working patterns are believed to contribute to a troubling record on mental health and wellbeing, as well as challenges with female inclusion.
Improving access to flexible working for site-based construction teams will address some of the cultural issues that contribute to the sector’s struggle to attract and retain talent. While flexible working is now part of everyday office life post covid, the same still cannot always be said for construction professionals on site.
Flexible working consultancy Timewise carried out pilots in 2020 and 2021 with four contractors on a programme co-designed with Build UK. Timewise says its studies show no adverse impact on budgets or timelines, while increasing workers’ sense of wellbeing and work-life balance. Introducing schemes where workers can choose to work longer hours from, for example, Monday to Thursday, so they can finish at lunchtime on a Friday, should be encouraged.
Feedback from two flexible working trials carried out by Sir Robert McAlpine in 2022 has been overwhelmingly positive. Employees reported that the flexibility gave them the opportunity for self-care, extra time for parenting responsibilities and allowed them to properly recharge their batteries. People felt more motivated, while the culture became more positive around acceptance and understanding of flexible workers.
Groups such as parents and carers, older workers and those with health concerns have often struggled with the demanding and offputting schedule of long hours based on site. Flexible working will help address this and increase female inclusion, while giving site-based staff a fresh burst of motivation.
True flexibility can encompass workplace, workloads or work patterns and help attract hard-to-reach talent as well as retain those working in construction already. And wellbeing more generally in the workplace needs to evolve beyond dealing with stress through mental health first aid and other coping skills for employees, to become a much more holistic strategy that is influenced by the culture, leadership and values of the company.
1. Addressing the skills shortage in construction requires long-term thinking and investment in the part of employers to attract the talent it needs. As immigration rules have tightened and competition from other sectors of the economy has increased, companies must invest time and money on effective people strategies to keep up with other sectors of the economy.
2. A particular focus needs to be on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) – moving beyond policies and to practical measures that support people and level the playing field.
3. Investment in EDI training is crucial in order to change outdated attitudes and team cultures.
4. Senior leaders should be held to account on EDI targets at board level, and be transparent about their diversity data in company reports so that progress can be tracked.
5. Wellbeing strategies should be aligned with an organisation’s values, leadership and culture, with responsibility placed at a senior level combined with investment in training managers.
6. To counter the long-hours culture for site workers, more contractors should trial flexible working arrangements, as has been done in the Timewise pilots.
7. To reverse an overwhelmingly negative public image, the industry should match-fund an advertising campaign with the government to promote different routes into construction careers, taking inspiration from campaigns such TV adverts for the British Armed Forces, while also tapping into younger audiences on social media channels.
Download the full report below