The UK has one of the worst productivity rates in Europe and we need to get more people working. Who will take ownership of this national tragedy, asks Richard Steer

richard steer BW

Have you ever come across a NEET? The chances are you have but may not have known it.

NEETs – that is young people aged between 16 and 24 who are not in education, employment or training – make up a hefty 12% of our population, the highest proportion since 2016. This is important to note for those of us working in the built environment, an industry that is hungry for young talent to fill a growing shortage of positions.

To remind you, the number of open vacancies in construction trades has reached 140,000, with builders, electricians and plumbers in most demand, and over 65,000 open vacancies on popular job sites recorded last summer alone.

Fewer skilled workers mean wage-side inflation, as a paucity of talent feeds into the demands of the supply chain. When confidence fully returns to our market, the shallow talent pool will impact the speed at which things can get built and ever-choosy contractors will become even more careful about what work they are able to absorb, fearing overload on a depleted workforce.

None of this is good news, with the shortage only predicted to get worse. I relate this because there is clearly a mismatch between a potential labour force that, for whatever reason, does not feel it wants to work and a country that is crying out for people it needs to provide labour.

It is not just our young people that are staying away, either. Alone among rich countries, the UK has seen a general exodus of people from the labour market following the pandemic. Since 2020, the proportion of the population who are not working but are of working age has risen to just under 22%. In round numbers that is 700,000 people whp arguably could work but don’t.

There are of course a number of reasons for this, including early retirement surges post-pandemic, but the main issue is rising levels of sickness and disability. Around 500,000 of the 700,000 coming out of the market are accounted for by illness.

In other economies a combination of hybrid working, tight labour markets and general desire to improve personal finances have seen a return to work since the pandemic

A record 2.7 million members of the UK workforce are currently classified as sick. Put another way, that is a massive 8% of workers affected.

The UK is certainly not typical when it comes to this issue. In other economies a combination of hybrid working, tight labour markets and general desire to improve personal finances have seen a return to work since the pandemic.

Take the United States for instance, where more than 1.8 million people with disabilities have joined the workforce, a 28% uplift.

So, what is going on here?

There is a general agreement that work is good. It allows the development of social skills (missed by the young during covid), offers a sense of self-worth and contributes to society – not just in economic terms but also, in the case of construction, in delivering the much-needed built environment.

Apprenticeships were designed to attract the young school leaver who might not want to take A levels or go to university, but they are not doing the trick either. The recruitment firm James Reed found that the proportion of 16-year-olds on apprenticeships dropped from just under 8% in 1999 to 2.8% in 2022.

Compared with 2015, the number of entry level apprenticeships for the under-19s has fallen by a massive 38% in 2022-23. For those aged 19 to 24 it was also down by 38%.

It looks as though the government’s apprenticeship levy – mostly paid by employers to fund training – ended up encouraging firms to upskill existing workers via training courses rather than take on new apprentices.

It seems that what is lacking is ownership of what is turning into a national tragedy – the stay-at-home “could-be” workforce. I am not seeing any government, current or future, stepping up to the plate to provide answers or direction.

The UK has some of the worst productivity rates in Europe and we need to stimulate those who can work to work

For example, the UK has a housing shortage, an underutilised workforce and an industry that wants to build and should be incentivised to train new talent. We need someone in power who can join the dots.

We need a people and skills tsar who is more than just a title – someone who sits in the Cabinet and has authority conferred on them by the prime minister to bring together the NHS to deliver better health outcomes, to work with the Treasury to provide ring-fenced funding, and to loop in a construction minister who stays in the post for more than five minutes and who can get buy-in from our industry.

The UK has some of the worst productivity rates in Europe and we need to stimulate those who can work to work. The roles of social isolation, technology and disrupted education in driving workers to prefer to stay at home rather than go out to work must be recognised and addressed quickly.

Given that the built environment is one of the country’s largest sectors, and that it is facing an ever-increasing skills shortage, we surely need to help.

Richard Steer is chair of Gleeds Worldwide and a Building The Future Think Tank commissioner for people and skills