Construction needs to do more than just change its image to attract the number of recruits the sector needs

Sarah Richardson

“I can prove anything with statistics, except the truth,” was the wry observation of one-time British prime minister George Canning two centuries ago. Many of those who have tracked the construction sector’s output over the last nine months, as recorded in the bleak picture presented by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), would probably say his scepticism is as valid today as it was then.

So the ONS’ acknowledgement this week that - contrary to its previous assertions - construction has not re-entered recession, and in fact has been growing for most of the past 15 months, is a welcome confirmation of what companies on the ground have been saying. But the relatively rosier consensus should not mask the fact that the sector’s growth is still being held back by resource constraints.

The extent of the skills shortage facing the industry is well documented. The Construction Industry Training Board estimates that 224,000 new roles will need to be filled in the industry by 2019; meaning more than 40,000 people need to be recruited to the sector each year. The reality is that the sector is miles away from hitting that target. For example, the number of completed apprenticeships – a major route into the industry – was at the lowest for more than a decade last year, with just over 9,000 completions.

Industry and government need to avoid letting a preoccupation with appearances distract from a focus on what lies behind them

Ultimately, the responsibility for attracting and retaining an expanded workforce has to rest with the sector and the firms whose bottom lines will benefit from the ability to grow. Much is made of the sector’s image, and how companies need to present themselves, and the industry, as more enticing places to work. All of this is true. But an image is nothing without the reality behind it and, for all the sector needs to take responsibility for its skills, the government still has a key role to play in helping create the conditions that genuinely make construction an attractive career option. If it wants to see delivery of the homes, schools and infrastructure that the UK needs to support its population and remain competitive, it has more than a vested interest in doing so.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the fact this is not lost on David Cameron and Co will be clearly apparent in the Budget in a few weeks’ time - the government will no doubt make expanding take up of apprenticeships a key tenet. And, as we explore here, there are certainly some short term measures the government can take to ease the chains on the sector’s growth. Namely, an environment for funding for apprentices which is more conducive to small firms’ involvement, stability over its approach to migrant labour and - in the professional arena – a halt to its planned scaling back of funding for BIM development.

But measures such as these will only have a lasting effect if they are taken with a longer-term context in mind. Apprentices are hardly going to be drawn to a sector where they cannot realistically bank on some sort of job security. As Simon Rawlinson argues persuasively here, if the government really wants recruits to be attracted to the sector, it would do well to act now to create conditions that would enable a reliable pipeline of countercyclical work for when the next downturn comes.

Both industry and government need to avoid letting a preoccupation with appearances distract from a focus on what lies behind them. As with those statistics, the difference between what is being presented and what is real usually becomes apparent in the end.

Sarah Richardson, editor