The upturn has exposed a skills shortage but construction’s key role in delivering a sustainable society means it needs to attract and train a new generation of professionals

Andrew Stunell

A year ago the talk was all about over-capacity in the construction sector.  The stories were of down-sizing, mergers, and well-known names going under. Today the panic is about under-capacity. A widening skills shortage as order books fatten is focusing minds on training and learning. It’s an abrupt turnaround, and
the HR team and the project planners are hastily dusting off the 2005 playbooks to see what to do next.

The good news is that behind the scenes at national level much work has been done to chart the way forward. There is a National Infrastructure Plan, there is Construction 2025, the joint industry-government delivery strategy, and announced this month is a £49m pot to be spent on recruiting and training the next generation of professionals for the industry. 

Back in 2010 I spent time on the ministerial team drawing up the National Infrastructure Plan. For the first time ever the cumulative effect of each government programme - transport, health, schools, energy and so on - was put together. It was in response to an obvious but overlooked point that in the absence of thought the state’s own investment profile could easily bust our home-based industry’s capacity to deliver at the peaks. And more generally, that a smoother delivery pipeline would maximise value for the government, as well as stabilising the design and contracting sector itself, permitting some serious long-term planning and skills development. Perhaps the National Infrastructure Plan will be more of a signpost than a GPS system, but it does point the way towards a long-overdue planned public sector investment programme.

This July the publication of the Construction 2025 strategy, drawn up by a joint industry-government team, takes the next step forward.  If the National Infrastructure Plan is the roadmap, Construction 2025 is the packing list for the journey. It’s about sustainability, growth, smarter construction - certainly vital if the very ambitious scope of the infrastructure plan is to be delivered. But as chief construction adviser Peter Hansford has made clear, it is more than anything about the people and the leadership that the industry will need to deliver results. That is a powerful message: if construction is the key to a green, growing and sustainable society, then it needs to attract and train the brightest young people, and it needs stability to retain and develop and promote them.

So we have the road map, we have the expedition kitted out, and this month we have the clear commitment we need from the government to support the industry in recruiting and training the people needed to take us on the journey. Vince Cable’s announcement that the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills is launching a £30m training fund, to be bid for by industry to help fill the engineering skills gap, is one very welcome part of that. It goes with another £19m aimed at getting more young people at school level to take up relevant subjects for a subsequent career in engineering. And it goes alongside a huge expansion of apprenticeships in which more than a million young people have undertaken training with employers in every sector of work since 2010.

We need to learn how to integrate complex building control systems in way that can be used intuitively by occupiers without a PhD

So far so good. But no one can be complacent about the capacity of our industry to deliver high-quality building and infrastructure projects on time, on budget, year after year: projects which really do deliver on sustainability and performance. There are still big skills gaps and fundamental delivery deficits. 

One gap is in building research. Too much of the little that happens is driven by narrow commercial interests. We need more research and best practice on the use of natural materials, on the lifecycle and maintenance costs of high-tech building systems, and perhaps above all on how to integrate increasingly complex building control systems in a way that can be used intuitively by building occupiers without a PhD.

The research gap is followed by the design gap. Designers need to be able to make airtight buildings you can breathe in, and deliver junctions between elements that not only stay watertight but don’t leak heat either.
On site builders need to take as much care on cold bridging as they do on fire door rebates. And finally the whole industry needs to invest a lot more in monitoring post-build performance and feed back the results to clients, users, designers and the construction team.

Where will the innovative thinking, the energy and the enterprise needed to achieve all that come from? Probably not from the battle-scarred senior managers who’ve had to use their survival skills to the full in the last few years. It will be the fresh-thinking strongly motivated twenty-and-thirty somethings who are going to shape the industry of the future.

To attract them we need to make it an industry to love, not avoid. To recruit them we need to show it’s an industry full of exciting things to be done, one that can deliver a long-term career with real opportunities for personal fulfilment. To challenge them we need to ask them if they are ready to take leadership in a world-class UK industry with a primary role in saving the planet.

Andrew Stunell is Lib Dem MP for Hazel Grove and a former minister responsible for Building Regulations