Attracting and retaining new workers to construction will require a new approach to education and training

William Burton

News last week that the UK has seen a decline in the number of skilled tradesmen highlights a worrying trend that all industries – not just construction – should be concerned about.  

According to the statistics published by ONS, the number of skilled workers – defined as people employed in roles linked to higher earnings and long term career prospects – has fallen by just over 2% in the last year and within the construction sector, there are now 21,000 fewer people with higher level vocational, degree, diploma, professional or managerial experience skills working in industry today than there were a year ago.

As a nation about to embark on delivering some of the most demanding infrastructure projects in a generation – Crossrail, Tyne Tunnel, Hinkley, Thames Tideway Tunnel – to name a few, the figures make for uneasy reading. As an industry needing to be at the top of its game, highly-skilled, experienced construction professionals have never been more in demand and yet figures indicate they are leaving the sector in disconcerting numbers.

Academia, vocational, technical and industry routes must be more intertwined to offer specialist training for the next generation of construction workers

Unfortunately, we cannot change the unwelcome blight the economic downturn left on the skills landscape. During the peak of the recession, construction companies battened down the hatches and prepared for the worst; staff training budgets were cut, recruitment declined, fewer graduate and apprenticeship training programmes were made available and the number of apprentices joining the industry halved. In short, industry wasn’t future-proofing its skills supply.

When it comes to construction, however, necessity has been the mother of invention; left with what remains, we must now rise to the challenge of how to approach the task of attracting, training and retaining a much wider group of talented people to the sector.

I believe the first step towards achieving this is getting rid of the ‘one-size fits all’ approach to training and adopting instead a much more encompassing approach, focused on vocational and technical pathways to open up the opportunities for higher paid careers. Academia, vocational, technical and industry routes must be more intertwined to offer specialist training for the next generation of construction workers.

The West Midlands Construction UTC in Walsall is one such example of what can be achieved when industry gets it right; a vocational training college, specialising in construction and offering a core GCSE curriculum with learning supported by some of the country’s leading construction companies. This is one model of excellence that must not only be celebrated, but encouraged as part of a fresh approach to delivering the highly skilled workforce the industry needs.

I firmly believe that without new thinking from industry and with fewer skilled workers, we cannot hope to become the internationally competitive, highly-skilled, high value industry that we aspire to be.

William Burton is interim chief executive of the CITB