An ageing workforce, many members of whom are considering retiring, is one of the major issues contributing to the construction industry’s current skills crisis

Elderly worker

In the UK, and throughout western Europe, the issue of retirement and how to live healthily in old age has come to the forefront in the last decade or so. Across Europe, around one-third of people will be over 60 by 2060, according to the think tank International Longevity Centre.

The issue has implications for construction, where the total number of employees over 60 had risen more than any other age group by 2015, when a report on the ageing workforce was published by the CIOB. In a sector that employs roughly 2.2 million people – they equate to about 8% of the UK’s total workforce – the potential cliff edge that the retirement of this group presents for the sector is huge.

Mark Farmer, founder of Cast, researched this issue for his government-commissioned review of the construction industry and concluded from 2011’s census data that almost one-third of the industry was over 50, and by 2026 up to 620,000 people may have left or retired from the construction sector.

This issue is acknowledged by the government, and a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report titled Fuller Working Lives found that 81,620 men and 18,550 women aged between 50 and 64 had left the construction profession in the last eight years.

The DWP’s 2017 report noted that, across all sectors, adding one year to every person in the UK’s working life could add £18bn to the economy. To do this, however, may need both the government and industry itself to think in new ways about how older workers can contribute longer and later in life.

According to a study by Age UK, the nature of the construction industry itself has been a factor in many workers taking early retirement. Those who do stay on over 60 find that their employment shifts focus, which can have a knock-on effect for their status within firms.

According to a CITB report on career progression in construction, published late last year, double the number of workers aged 60 or over felt that their status had fallen compared with those under 60. This reflected a practice of older workers “winding down” and taking less arduous jobs in the industry as they approached retirement.

So, how do older workers in construction feel as they approach retirement? Here, two industry professionals outline how they see themselves carrying on working past retirement age, while another discusses how he has managed to scale back his workload to continue working after a health scare.

Paul Etherington, 58

Paul Etherington

Position: Senior project manager
Company: BW Workplace Experts

Why are you thinking about working beyond retirement age?

In a nutshell, I really enjoy it. The construction market is changing so rapidly with tech innovations that it is an exciting place to be. I see no reason to “get off the bus” yet. I still get a buzz from the work; I still feel mentally challenged by what I do and the subsequent sense of satisfaction from doing a good job. I think as you get older the financial reward, although still important, takes second place to the experience.

What do you think older workers bring to the workplace?

My career is unusual in that I went from client-side (working for a major bank) that had a fairly rigid infrastructure, and decided to switch to supplier side in my fifties. At the time, I felt like I needed to undertake different projects where I would have more autonomy and creativity and this has certainly been the case. It has also been very rewarding to be able to share my knowledge, and a deep understanding of client needs, expectations and priorities, with the rest of my team at BW. On the flip side, I am also able to have true empathy with my client and it leads to very frank and open discussions.

Does your age affect the way you work?

Physically, no difference at all, and mentally the experience I have gained throughout my career definitely helps with clarity of thought and the “been there before” sense of confidence. As you get older, you don’t sweat the small the stuff. You become calmer, more considered and things don’t faze you as easily.

Have you any tips for someone considering whether to continue to work beyond retirement age?

It is a very personal decision, but if you enjoy your work and still feel confident then continue to share your knowledge. Give back to the industry and improve it.

Any tips for the next generation entering the industry?

Study early and be open minded. The construction industry is changing daily – embrace it and keep learning. Believe me – you never stop.

John Ballance OBE, 77

John Ballance

Position: Senior project manager
Company: Bruceshaw

Why did you decide to work beyond retirement age?

I just didn’t feel like I was old enough to retire. I still enjoy the work that I do, and I am sure the very interesting projects that I work on is another factor. I do a lot of five-star hotel work, which I thoroughly enjoy.

What do you think older workers bring to the workplace?

Clearly experience and, also, gravitas. This is particularly true in project manager work – you are frequently working with very senior people who are continually looking to you for advice. Two decades ago, there was a movement for many organisations to retire professionals early and promote the youth. This was a mistake because wisdom goes with the people. The best solution is a fine balance and good organisations recognise the value in multi-generational experience.

Does your age affect the way you work?

No, fortunately I have my health and I find working with the younger team members wonderful.

Have you got any tips for someone considering whether to continue to work beyond retirement age?

I would encourage anyone to look at what life would be like without the interest, excitement and enjoyment of work. Going from being very busy to having nothing in your day would be quite a shock to the system. I find that my retired friends are very busy but perhaps with different things – hobbies and charity work for example.

Any tips for the next generation entering the industry?

For my generation, you came in and got a qualification. Nowadays there is an expectation to have further qualifications before you join and extend your education. Having said that, my original degree was in civil engineering, and 10 years later I did a degree in architecture, which is a great combination for a project management professional.

Martin Chambers, 58

Martin Chambers

Position: Director
Company: Shaylor Group

Why did you decide to cut back your workload?

After a health scare 10 years ago, I decided I would “retire” early to enjoy life more and take stock of things I had achieved. I still wanted to work to keep my brain active. But, where before I had a number of non-executive director positions and roles with different firms, I have now scaled back to one role. As a director, I come to work and tackle different challenges, which is great for keeping my mind ticking over and makes me feel that I make a tangible difference to the company.

What do you think older workers bring to the workplace?

One of the big benefits – which is maybe a bit of a cliché – is that I have seen many of the issues and problems before. This allows older workers to help and guide younger co-workers. Yet I do think older workers gain a great deal from younger co-workers. They have an enormous amount of energy and may look at a problem from a completely different perspective to me.

Does your age affect the way you work?

Yes – I no longer work 12-hour days. However, I think I am more productive working shorter hours, plus I can choose, to some extent, my work schedule. Technology is moving so fast that being older can at times be a disadvantage in the workplace. New ideas, methods and technology can be motivating to younger workers but be a hindrance for a less tech-savvy older worker.

Have you got any tips for someone considering whether to continue to work beyond retirement age?

Keep things in perspective and be realistic. You cannot do too much because you may burn out. But at the same time, if you do nothing you can turn into a vegetable. Also, you need to do something that makes a difference. It is so rewarding knowing that you do something that is positive and helps people.

Any tips for the next generation entering the industry?

Learn how to collaborate and work with others, as well as pacing yourself throughout your career. No single person has the best idea and we need to learn to co-operate and create together in order to rise to the challenges facing our industry.