They say construction has an image problem. But the bigger issue is that young people who are attracted to the industry aren’t getting the help they need

Are we attractive? As a relative newcomer to the industry, I’m often asked this question when the conversation turns to the looming skills crisis.

Construction’s poor image is often mentioned as one of the primary reasons why people are not joining in the numbers needed. Traditionally, UK construction has been seen as an ageing, white, male-dominated industry, but this is more than just an image problem, as recent statistics show.

The Construction Skills Foresight Report 2003 tells us that between 1992 and 2002, the position has been getting more entrenched. Non-white employment in the industry has risen from 1.5% to only 2.4%, but the percentage of women in the workforce has fallen from 11.7% to 9.3%.

There has been an increase in the 16–24 age range in the past few years but a decrease in the share of the 25–29 age group. The 45+ group is still on the increase.

So is this why new recruits are not coming through? Is it enough to deter those considering a career in construction? Is it that unattractive?

In recent years, the then Construction Industry Training Board tried to create an alternative “attractive” image of the industry with an advertising campaign based on the diverse opportunities the industry has to offer. Who can forget “getting plastered in Ibiza”?

The problem with such campaigns is that they make promises that are difficult to deliver. As soon as people who join the industry because of this campaign realise that there are not as many plastering jobs in Ibiza as the advert makes out, they leave. It is not a sustainable solution. If we try to make ourselves attractive based on anything other than the true qualities of our industry, we will always come up short.

Image, real or fake, isn’t the whole story when it comes to attracting construction workers, though. Take these few recent events, which served to change my mind on the recruitment problem.

At a local college, I heard frustrated stories of applying for jobs, writing to employers, attending training courses and knocking on doors – all with no success

The first was a CITB-ConstructionSkills meeting, attended by local employers, schools, colleges, training providers and Jobcentre Plus. At the meeting, we were told thousands of individuals were on the books of the local college awaiting construction-related training courses. These people have been attracted to the industry despite its image, but without the backing of an employer they cannot enrol on the course.

At the same meeting, a careers adviser at a girls’ school said she had a host of girls who wanted to join the industry and were excited by the prospect. But they had no employer coming forward to invest in them.

A little while ago, I met a local technical college as part of the Building a Better Future programme. I stood in a room full of desperate people and heard frustrated stories of applying for jobs, writing to employers, attending training courses and knocking on doors – all with no success. Why does the construction industry complain about lack of people, they asked, if it doesn’t want to help?

One individual on the programme, a man in his late 30s, was desperate to get back into the industry. He had left school at a young age and had joined a haulage company delivering materials and removing waste from construction sites. Then last year he was diagnosed with diabetes, and before he knew it his operator’s licence for heavy goods vehicles was revoked and he was jobless. Six months later he was still trying to find a job in construction.

All this makes me wonder if the skills crisis is really the threat we say it is. If there is going to be a major strain on our resources in the foreseeable future, wouldn’t we be doing something about it now? Why are there still people waiting in line for backing to get on a course? I would be more worried if there was no queue at CITB-ConstructionSkills. At least the solution is in our hands – or perhaps our pockets – and not in the eyes of potential new recruits.

So it looks like we have an image that we can improve on, but one that is attracting individuals – albeit not enough of them. What we must do is promote our attractive qualities and support those who are attracted to us. The individuals I met wanted to join an industry that tells everyone it is facing a skills crisis, and one where they thought they were in demand. Then they couldn’t find a job.