The Building the Future Commission kicked off its series of regional roundtables with a trip to Cambridge to talk about skills with construction experts from across the east of England.
Since January, our ambitious, year-long Building the Future Commission initiative has been uncovering solutions and ideas to improve the built environment. The project does not focus on one area but instead is divided into eight workstreams focused on different aspects of the industry.
But we also realise that the challenges facing the UK’s construction industry are not homogenous throughout the country. What works in one region may not be needed in another, due to different demographic and geographic challenges.
For this reason, and in partnership with Constructing Excellence, we are going around the country convening high-level roundtable discussions with experts in different regions to ensure that the commission hears a breadth of voices from all corners of the UK.
For the first of these, Building gathered a group of experts who each have links to the east of England for a chat about a region that some see as living in London’s shadow.
Ahead of the event, in the grade II-listed, part-medieval Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, the group were asked to think about the challenges that firms in the east of England face in attracting and retaining construction talent.
The panel (see below) was packed with people who have strong connections to the region, bringing with them a high level of local knowledge and experience.
- Alison Nicholl, head, Constructing Excellence
- Martin Hall, regional director, Gleeds
- Simon Tolson, senior partner, Fenwick Elliott
- Ben Hayek, partner, Bidwells
- Andy Levy, head of projects, University of Cambridge Estates
- Melissa Ling, apprenticeship co-ordinator for construction, University of Hertfordshire
- Liz Male MBE, communications lead, CLC Construction Talent Retention Scheme
- Dan Mason, capital portfolio director, AstraZeneca
- Graham Thornton, group technical training manager, Willmott Dixon
- Nathan Wilkins, customer engagement manager, East Midlands and East of England, CITB
The east of England’s geography and demographics
None more so than Martin Hall, regional director of Gleeds, who has worked in Cambridge and London for 30 years, heading up the consultancy’s office in the city along with three other offices. “Cambridge is my home and heart,” said Hall, early in the discussion, as he described the special geographical challenges that face the region.
“The east of England does have a particular challenge in the fact there is a drain towards London: anyone who lives south of Cambridge has the opportunity to commute into London and earn better wages,” he said.
The London “talent drain” is well understood, but Hall said a simple lack of population in the east of the region also adds to difficulties in attracting staff. “We spend a lot of time trying to attract people from Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich but, while there are three cities in Cambridgeshire, there are only about five or six cities in the whole of East Anglia – there are no people.”
For Hall, this means it is even more important that construction employers in the region make clear the rewarding careers available in the industry.
Melissa Ling, apprenticeship co-ordinator for construction at the University of Hertfordshire, also recognises the problem of the skills drain. She used to run the HNC programme at Oaklands College in Hertfordshire, which offers courses in partnership with her university, and says this can help to keep construction employees local.
However, she said, the issue comes when companies in the east of England send cohorts of trainee staff to technical colleges in the capital, such as Westminster and South Bank.
“They get connections there, and that’s when they start meeting people and going out – and they [the companies] can’t retain them. So you need local colleges and local university courses as well,” said Ling.
However, when it comes to Cambridge itself, Simon Tolson, partner at law firm Fenwick Elliot, pointed out that the university is “one of the most significant employers and also the biggest procurers”. He added: “It’s an exciting city, isn’t it?
“I keep reading about all these science parks in Building magazine – there’s a lot of brain drain happening with people from other parts of the world coming here.”
Andy Levy, head of projects at University of Cambridge Estates, naturally chimed in at this point, citing figures showing that the university contributes an annual £2.5bn to construction output, creating 2,200 jobs in the industry a year.
So, while the great behemoth of London may be luring workers and trainees away from the east of England, the university seems to act as a counterbalance, attracting construction labour to the region.
East of England construction in numbers
£1.46bn value of project starts
£565m value of major projects
£4.23bn value of main contract awards
£500m value of private housing projects
Source: Glenigan, three months to February
The impact of technology
But to what extent has the use of technology and remote working changed the importance of location, in any case?
Levy asked: “Do you think things are changing now you don’t need to be in the office five days a week? The area in which we are recruiting from is so much wider now geographically.”
Tolson pointed out that people are more likely to be working on site at the beginning of their career. Hayek, a partner at Bidwells consultancy, agreed, adding: “Construction does exist in a physical world, and we can’t get away from that.”
He suggested, however, that technology could have a role to play in helping firms identify where flexibility can be given and when it can’t.
Alison Nicholl, head of Constructing Excellence said: “We’ve seen some really good examples of where technology can help, such as autonomous plant where people can operate it from their bedroom – which can also open up opportunities for disabled workers.”
So, technology may have a role to play in both identifying areas for work location flexibility and actually enabling it.
But how well is construction doing at attracting people, and how does it overcome the blocks to achieving this? Liz Male, communications lead on the Construction Leadership Council (CLC)’s construction talent retention scheme, asked the panel if she could be “provocative” before suggesting construction is no different to other industries in its skills challenges.
“There are groups like us dotted around roundtables in other parts of the country right now figuring out how to deal with the shortage of people in fashion, law, aerospace or whatever it might be,” she said.
“We talk ourselves into believing that nobody wants to work in construction and that we are not an attractive industry, but that is not what is coming through.”
That said, the panel did agree that there was room for improvement, with Dan Mason, capital portfolio director at AstraZeneca, talking about the need to tackle what he described as the “stigma” of working in construction.
The panel discussed the range of jobs in the industry and the potential that technology can have in creating a greater variety of roles to attract wider cohort of people.
Nathan Wilkins, customer engagement manager for the east of England at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), warned that a major challenge is getting construction employers to actually publicise their opportunities, even if they are talking about skills shortages. “We suffer from a hidden jobs market in construction.”
Wilkins said local authorities can stipulate in section 106 planning agreements that firms take on a specified number of local employees or apprentices. The problem is that firms’ awareness of what is available in terms of skills may be low.
Tolson said: “One of the problems when you have that in a section 106 is that the requirements are difficult to satisfy because they can’t get the right people with the right skills on the site.” For Wilkins, it all comes back to communication, and the importance of networks between employers and colleges, once again.
“If, for example, within the area you can’t find the skills, then at least the businesses who could actually develop the skills are aware there’s an opportunity to do so,” he said.
The panel also suggested that clients need to see aims such as attracting local skills as integral to projects, rather than leaving it to the contractor.
Male suggested that, when firms are trying to advertise for roles, HR heads in the industry can grow frustrated by jobs sites and agencies. “The standard algorithms aren’t working in favour of the industry,” she said.
She gave an example of her successful direct hire of a 64-year-old, who said jobs site algorithms had filtered him out on account of his age.
Attracting people into the industry is part of the battle, but how do you then retain them? The panel pointed out that there are a whole range of roles within the industry and people might not necessarily know which is the right one for them unless they get a chance to try their hand at different jobs.
Hayek said that if people are trained in a narrow way for specific roles which don’t “float their boat” then the industry risks losing them. He pondered whether construction could learn a thing or two from other professions.
“If you look at medicine and law, there’s a qualification which is quite generalised, and then the opportunity to specialise thereafter once you can see what the basis and the foundation of the industry is.”
Male pointed to the campaigns the army has run to publicise the full range of jobs it offers as a potential inspiration for construction.
Ling noted one challenge in recruitment is that so much of the construction industry is made up of small businesses, who often need people to fulfil very specific roles.
She said: “I have this conversation with employers, saying ‘look, how are you going to get this person to get on and get experience – you might need to second him to a different company’. But then they say they can’t lose the resource.”
Tolson agreed, and suggested that some kind of “swap system” could enable firms to give employees a breadth of experience without sacrificing resource on particular jobs or projects.
Another barrier for smaller firms, especially sole traders, is navigating the apprenticeship funding route, suggested Ling. She said: “They find it very difficult to understand the funding mechanism – we have talked to the CITB about this in our forums.”
Despite this, the panel seemed largely in favour of the benefits of the apprenticeship route. In addition, Male said, a Talentview Construction survey has found that 80% of parents believe apprenticeships offer as good or better value for money than degrees.
But, regardless of whether staff are trained through apprenticeships, degrees or on-site learning, there must be something about the industry that attracts and increasingly inclusivity is important.
This includes conditions on site. Nicholl talked of frank discussions she had had about sanitary provision and said a friend of hers once had to ask six different people to get a key to open the women’s toilets on a construction site.
On top of that was the issue of right-sized clothing and safety equipment. “We’ve got to get some of those basics sorted,” said Nicholl.
While the working environment itself might often be non-inclusive, the language used in job advertisements can also be exclusionary on an level unconscious to the writer. Mason said AstraZeneca now requires any job advertisement to go through software to improve its inclusivity level.
“The first one I did came back with a really bad score, and it said the language was too masculine,” he admitted.
For Male, one of the easiest things that a firm can do is simply to state that it welcomes applications from under-represented groups, in addition to making it clear that someone does not necessarily have to fulfil all the criteria in order to apply. “It’s transformational when you do that, because it flags up you don’t have to be a square peg in a square hole,” she said.
Graham Thornton, group technical training manager at Willmott Dixon, stressed the importance of allowing people to work flexible hours. “Some people get in at seven o’clock in the morning but leave at three to pick the kids up – that is flexible working,” he said.
In addition to inclusivity, the green agenda is increasingly important to younger people when deciding on a career.
“If we want to get Gen Z interested in construction, we have to talk about purpose,” argued Male. “Construction has a huge part to play in helping us get to net zero. We need to promote the green jobs in construction as careers for pioneers.”
As the roundtable approached the end of its hour-and-a-half of debate, the panel came out with a flood of suggestions on how to attract younger people into the industry, from going into schools to talk to pupils at a younger age, to online construction solutions competitions, to a regular east of England “construction awareness day”, encouraging the use of Tik Tok and social media campaigns.
The panel below lists more of the suggestions the panel came up with.
The key takeaways for the commission from the east of England roundtable were around the importance of communication and networks, businesses working together to fill gaps, and sharing opportunities to hire, while being aware of the need to appear inclusive and flexible.
Ideas from the panel
- Bigger role for regional networks of employers, trainers and colleges
A common theme was the need for companies and colleges to talk to each other more about regional construction skills and labour issues, to ensure opportunities are not missed. Liz Male suggested a resurgence of trade association regional chapters and a strengthening of cross-industry business relationships could prove to be a solution.
- A “swap system” to allow smaller companies to give staff wider experience without losing resource
Melissa Ling said a solution could be some sort of experience swapping between apprentices in large and small construction firms. This, she argues, could be an opportunity for apprentices who work in large firms to experience a specialist environment and for those in smaller firms to plug any gaps in experience. It could also lead to knowledge-sharing as well, helping smaller companies to become more efficient.
- Checking job advertisements for exclusionary language, such as masculine language
Dan Mason pointed to software solutions, such as textio.com, that the construction industry could adopt to help ensure inclusive language.
- Hold online construction solutions competitions
Ben Hayek said the science industry has annual coding competitions, so why not have an online construction solving competition?
- Clients should speak to engineers and other consultants to assess skill levels in the round, not just speak to the contractor
Andy Levy said developers often simply transfer section 106 planning obligations, such as a requirement to hire locally, straight to their appointed contractor, and do not fully engage in the process. Developers, he argued, should not miss opportunities to engage with other members of the project team who could also contribute to meeting the obligations.
- An armed forces-style campaign showing the breadth of construction jobs
Male argued construction needs to look to the British army for inspiration. She pointed out that when it was struggling to recruit people, it launched a big campaign “showing all the different opportunities you could use your talents for”.
- An east of England construction awareness day
Male suggested there should be one day every year when every construction-related business in the region “flings open its doors” and invites children and young people to experience the industry, all publicised as a big construction “extravaganza”.
- After-school construction clubs
The panel talked about the need for more after-school clubs focused on construction skills, even for younger children, who could for instance use Lego to creatively construct things.
The Building the Future Commission
The Building the Future Commission is a year-long project, launched to mark Building’s 180th anniversary, to assess potential solutions and radical new ways of thinking to improve the built environment, with thanks to our national headline sponsors Fenwick Elliott and Gleeds.
The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of 19 major figures who have signed up to help guide the commission’s work culminatuing culminate in a report published at the end of the year.
The commissioners include figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal.
The commissioners include Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, Katy Dowding, executive vice president at Skanska, Richard Steer, chair of Gleeds, Lara Oyedele, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Wild, former boss of Crossrail and chief executive of SGN and Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott. See the full list here.
The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:
- Education and skills
- Housing and planning
- Energy and net zero
- Building safety
- Project delivery and digital
- Workplace culture and leadership
- Creating communities
Building the Future is also undertaking a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. There is also a young person’s advisory panel.
We are inviting readers to submit ideas for how to improve the built environment through our online form which will form part of our Ideas Hub coming soon.