The adoption of modern methods of construction offers an opportunity to expand the industry’s skills base and attract a wider range of young people

Mark farmer 2017 bw

Just as we were ready to welcome and praise last year’s Industrial Strategy putting the construction industry’s modernisation high up on the agenda, the UK’s second-largest construction firm collapsed. Carillion’s demise means different things to different stakeholders, but has only one overarching implication: we must change our basic delivery model, prioritising new procurement models and more technology-enabled delivery methods fundamentally underpinned by future-proofed skills and accreditation programmes.

Any such reform is critical to addressing the damage done by the Carillion collapse – and indeed the fire at Grenfell Tower – to the attraction of young talent into our industry. It is also badly damaging public trust in our industry. Ongoing media exposes of poor-quality homebuilding also continue unabated. 

In order to avert this kind of crisis, we must move away from the image of construction that is depicted in Channel 4’s latest sitcom, Lee and Dean, which follows two builders’ daily lives and hits all the clichés associated with the image of the cowboy builder. Replicating and maintaining stereotypes will only exacerbate our growing recruitment problem, as new entrants into the industry sink to record lows and the current workforce continues to age, with 19% of construction workers set to retire within a decade. 

So much of the entry into our industry is driven by being a last chance saloon for disenfranchised kids. That is simply not good enough

The construction industry should be able to attract, retain and provide stable career opportunities to young workers. But the traditional roles we continue to recruit for struggle to address any of these requirements. As we change the way we deliver built assets, so too will change the jobs our industry can provide. A more technology-led, manufacturing-based delivery model will attract a swathe of young people interested in 3D modelling and robotics. An industry as socially and economically important as construction ought to be able to inspire the young to be part of it. 

Many contractors and developers would consider a move towards more digitally led manufacturing models of homebuilding. However, lack of awareness of systems – combined with a shortage of adequate skills and training programmes and a shortfall in manufacturing supply chain maturity and capacity – leads them to deem it too risky to embrace greater levels of offsite production, sustaining the pernicious “business as usual” mindset. 

Despite all the gloom on skills shortages, we can see good initiatives coming forward. The recently launched London Mayor’s Construction Academy  (MCA) programme, for example, aims not only to increase the number of skilled workers in London, but also to improve the quality of training. This will translate into improved delivery of projects, with high-quality skills spanning traditional, hybrid and manufacturing techniques. Part of the MCA prospectus is the eventual formation of training “hubs”, combining clusters of industry employers with training providers that connect with local schools, to ensure we have a steady pipeline of potential talent hardwired into these centres of excellence. Ideally, these hubs will cover all aspects of the built environment, including professional services. 

A more technology-led, manufacturing-based delivery model will attract a swathe of young people interested in areas such as 3D modelling and robotics

One only has to look at the work being done by Alison Watson of student engagement programme provider Class of Your Own, with its design-engineer-construct curriculum, to see how kids from 11 years old can be inspired to join our industry, helping promote social mobility and the diversity our industry so lacks. So much of the entry into our industry is driven by being a last chance saloon for disenfranchised kids. That is simply not good enough. We must transform the narrative of what we do as a sector, not simply applying some window-dressing measures, because the issue lies much deeper than that.

The skills agenda of the MCA is designed to respond to the changing needs of the construction industry, breaking the rigidity of traditional frameworks and applying a healthy dollop of dynamism to our industry. While bricklaying and carpentry will still undoubtedly be needed across the board, the MCA will provide the more digitally focused construction skills used in offsite factories and design offices that are going to be increasingly demanded as we develop new delivery techniques. 

The true potential of the MCA programme lies in its potential relevance on a national scale, linked to regional devolution and the government’s Industrial Strategy. There is no reason why its example cannot be followed by the Midlands Engine or the Northern Powerhouse.

The London housing crisis could bring prosperity and opportunity to economically long-suffering parts of the UK, through adoption of a “build by manufacturing” mindset and creation of training institutions that endow the skills needed to design and build high-quality digitally manufactured homes. The demand for 66,000 homes per year in London alone could create thousands of jobs in the regions.

This change can start in London and then fan out to the regions. From there, it can go global, with Britain exporting its skills and expertise worldwide. Let’s be bold and ambitious. This is what the next generation need to see to make them want to be part of our future.