The industry’s approach to attracting and hiring new talent is haphazard. The Construction Leadership Council, if properly funded, could do something about it

Richard Threlfall

You know the way these things happen. There you are at an industry dinner, chatting amiably to your neighbours, randomly talking about things that interest you, the wine flows, and it is only the next morning you realise you’ve signed up for something serious. 

In this particular case, it was four days on a racing yacht on the Solent, training for and then taking part in the construction industry’s Little Britain race. Perhaps it’s only me this happens to, because I tend to just say yes. And I do like sailing. Or maybe it’s just because it is difficult not to say yes to Suzannah Nichol, Build UK’s passionate and tenacious chief executive. 

We need a co-ordinated approach to attracting young people across the whole industry, drawing on technology to help implement it

Fast forward to early September, and we are on the water, a fine crew drawn from a range of industry organisations – Brett Martin, Build UK, Go-Construct – backed by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) – Kaicer, KPMG and Sir Robert McAlpine. And two professionals, Nick and Finn, who are there to help us win. But it was not just about winning. We were team Inspiring Construction, and we were there to raise awareness of something really important for the future of our construction industry: attracting and recruiting young people into it.

We’ve been talking about this for decades. And organisations like the Construction Youth Trust have been doing great work. But we are still too fragmented. We need a co-ordinated approach across the whole industry, drawing on technology to help implement it. Inspiring Construction, an industry campaign led by Build UK and the CITB, is part of that solution, putting construction and STEM ambassadors into schools, supporting the right college courses and opening projects to visitors in Open Doors week each year.

This co-ordination has eluded us because it requires single industry leadership and a willingness by the entire industry to fall in line with that governance

But we need to do so much more. These are some thoughts on what we should aspire to achieve:

  • Comprehensive, co-ordinated schools coverage. There are a finite number of schools in the country, and no shortage of individuals and organisations willing to give up their time to talk to students about our industry. So it shouldn’t be rocket science to manage the programme and improve the current patchwork of coverage.
  • An apprenticeship application process for the industry, so that it is as easy to apply for a job in construction as it is to apply to university. In our fragmented industry every recruitment process and application form is unique, forcing applicants to rewrite the same information about themselves dozens, if not hundreds, of times. 
  • A formal work experience system, providing both employers and employees with clarity about the skills that an individual should be seeking to acquire, and a signed record of the experience gained.
  • An industry-led view of anticipated future industry skills needs, translated into systematic provision of appropriate training courses.
  • A more effective way of using the apprenticeship levy that incentivises employers to use it to deliver skills that are needed within the supply chain. 
  • A deliberate strategy to share the great news about our industry on social and conventional media, to add to the impact of inspiring blockbusters like Crossrail’s The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway and Thames Tideway’s The Five Billion Pound Super Sewer. 
  • Communities database and portal – an online gateway that allows individuals entering or contemplating entering the industry to understand the range of organisations providing networks for particular communities within it, for example to support women, or the disabled, and get in touch with the ones that most appeal.

None of this is conceptually hard. And the technology that could support it is child’s play. But this co-ordination has eluded us because it requires single industry leadership and a willingness by the entire industry to fall in line with that governance.

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has striven under Andrew Wolstenholme’s excellent direction to co-ordinate the industry, and I believe it is the right body to sponsor all of the initiatives I have proposed. But the CLC has no dedicated budget, and an organisation that depends on contributions in kind will always be critically constrained in what it can achieve.

Those organisations that are funded by their memberships, whether Build UK or the many specialist associations, or professional bodies like the Institution of Civil Engineers, represent some of the industry but not all of it, so generally feel they have no mandate to try to impose a universal solution. The CITB’s remit is too narrow to allow it to take on the role required, or to fund the CLC to do it. And government has no desire to step in. 

I don’t suppose I will make myself popular if I suggest a third levy, to support the work of the CLC. If I was still on our yacht in the Solent, I suspect we would rapidly be sunk by a torpedo. But however it is done, the industry must fund the CLC – because Inspiring Construction is in the whole industry’s interest.

Richard Threlfall is global head of infrastructure at KPMG