Will Westminster finally help address construction’s skills shortfall?


Has Westminster finally woken up to the idea that it is in its interests urgently to take a lead in helping address construction’s skills shortfall?

The confirmation this week that housing minister Brandon Lewis and skills minister Nick Boles have commissioned a review of the industry’s skills problems might be dismissed by cynics as simply the launch of another academic exercise; a paper that, however well-argued its conclusions, will struggle to make an impact beyond Whitehall briefing notes and the industry’s chattering classes. The less cynical, however, might note two intriguing - and encouraging - points about the brief that government has (via the Construction Leadership Council) given to consultant Mark Farmer.

The first is that there is only a month for interested parties to submit evidence. This implies that the ministers do actually want some clear findings, rather than just the ongoing appearance that they are looking into an issue. The second point worth noting is that the government has explicitly asked for the review to report on the barriers to off-site construction, which, through greater use of technology, would reduce construction’s reliance on labour. This is significant because, as those commissioning the report will be well aware, one of the most oft-cited barriers is the lack of a reliable pipeline of demand - the kind that only the largest clients, such as the public sector, could really kick-start.

There is an irony, of course, in the fact that the off-site processes that will form a key focus of the review, are still considered “modern methods” of construction. The ideas behind them, and pockets of practice, have been around for decades. But, as one contractor points out on page 20, it can take four or five years for schemes to move from conception to reality - and, because off-site techniques have not yet taken off at scale in the UK, projects are still being designed with traditional construction methods in mind.

So, if the projects of 2020 are to be delivered in a radically different way to those of today, the shift in mindset to clients embracing this form of delivery, and the design considerations that go with it, needs to happen now. And, it needs to be underpinned by a pipeline of work that is predictable and not dependent on short-term market cycles, otherwise there will be little incentive for the majority of construction businesses to invest - which is the only way these technologies will be able to impact on the overall model of labour in the industry. And reaching this promised land, given labour shortages are fuelling fears over cost and speed of delivery, is the reason behind the government’s renewed interest in the issue in the first place.

For the industry, therefore, the review represents an opportunity to push the government once again to use its influence as a client to drive the demand that could provoke the sea-change in the industry’s productivity that has been talked about since “modern” really did stand for new. And the timing of the initiative - with the government under pressure over a housing shortage - means that it’s an opportunity that at least stands more of a chance of being heard than it has in the past.

Of course, for housing to become the bedrock of a government-led push towards off-site manufacture, any ministers convinced by the benefits of a more technologically advanced era of construction would need to overcome the present government’s political blindness to housing initiatives that do not centre on home ownership. The bumpy cycle of sales demand means policies supporting other types of housing - affordable homes, private rented -  would be key to creating the steady pipeline that would remove businesses’ disincentives to invest.

That’s a big task, and reinforces the belief that, although government leadership would provide a driver for off-site technologies, construction businesses themselves need to push forward the agenda on skills and recruitment if they are not to be constrained by a dearth of labour for the coming years.

With a looming predicted shortfall of 1 million workers, they cannot afford not to. In five years’ time, those people hired into the sector now may well be working in a very different environment to today. But the experience they gain now will be invaluable in working out how to use new technologies to the greatest effect - to create an industry that can continue adapting through future as well as “modern” times.

Sarah Richardson, editor