Given the UK will require 400,000 new construction workers every year until 2021, there is an urgent need to take a fresh look at the skills challenge

It is welcome news that construction has won government backing aimed at improving productivity and efficiency with funding commitments to housebuilding and construction training prioritised. At the same time, the recent Budget also reinforced the government’s commitment to offsite construction, which will be favoured for public infrastructure schemes from 2019.

However, labour shortages for infrastructure and housing ahead of Brexit remain a major concern despite this drive to improve offsite, digital and construction skills. Dramatic figures recently released by the Department of Education showed a 59% year-on-year drop in those starting construction apprenticeships since April, a stark reminder of the scale of the skills challenge for the whole of UK plc.

The average age of the construction workforce in the UK is increasing, creating a potential time bomb that will play out over the next 10 years as the workforce shrinks by 25%.

Given the UK will require 400,000 new construction workers every year until 2021 to deliver the housing targets and the planned projects in the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan (NIDP), there is an urgent need to take a fresh look at the skills challenge and how we can collectively future-proof the UK construction industry.

One way of achieving this is through the adoption of more diverse skillsets. The benefits of prefabrication and offsite solutions are well documented: speed of construction, improved performance and a potential reduction in construction costs are being enhanced by the growing requirement to deliver more capacity to the market.

While the government’s commitment to offsite is to be applauded, the level of innovation and modernisation across the industry has so far been limited, meaning coordinated action is also needed across organisations. In the long-term, training and re-training are helpful.

In the short-term, the industry would benefit from a more inclusive and collaborative approach to succeed. Irish companies are uniquely positioned to provide a vital skills injection, with trade in Irish products and services to the UK increasing by 68% over the past five years, to €1.29bn in 2016.

A recent Enterprise Ireland Digital Transition Survey showed that Ireland’s digital capabilities and productivity are also deepening, with 76% of AEC organisations feeling confident in their BIM skills and knowledge. Ireland’s National BIM Council has also developed the first digital strategy for Ireland’s construction industry, which provides a roadmap of strategic initiatives to further build the public and private sectors’ digital capability. Trade relationships between the UK and Ireland can be expected to deepen even further around mutual needs over the coming years.

Training and retraining will certainly be a key focus for the UK government in the new year with ambitious new infrastructure developments on the horizon. But, to really succeed, the industry should not underestimate the power of collaboration, which can provide vital capacity, innovation and capability at this vital time.