With a maturing workforce and negative perception among young people, the industry is facing a future skills crisis. We must act now to stop this time bomb

With another financial crisis potentially on the horizon, the odds seem stacked against us when it comes to helping the construction industry get back on its feet.

What’s more, the risk of a crippling skills gap in the next few years appears greater than ever, as recent CITB-ConstructionSkills figures reveal that the number of 16-19
year-olds in the industry has more than halved since the start of the recession.

Coupled with the fact that we have an ageing workforce - with one in six workers due to retire within the next decade - we’re facing the real possibility that we’re not going to have enough skilled workers available to maximise the benefits of the upturn when it comes.

The industry lost a lot of 16-24 year-olds during the recession in the nineties, and the recent recession has again had a disastrous impact on young people in the sector.
In 1990, more than 22% of workers in the industry were aged 24 and under but today the picture has changed for the worse, with just 12% of the workforce in this age range.

There are fewer job vacancies at present but the recession has also had a bad impact on how young people view the industry, with many worried that it won’t offer them stable and progressive career opportunities.

We need to provide more opportunities for young people to get into construction, particularly by offering more apprenticeships, which are the life-blood of the industry

We need to set the record straight about the fantastic prospects available to ambitious candidates and CITB-ConstructionSkills is working hard to enhance the industry’s reputation among young people through our Positive Image campaign.

At the same time, we need to provide more opportunities for young people to get into construction, particularly by offering more apprenticeships, which remain the life-blood of the industry.

Understandably, some employers may deem it counterintuitive to take on apprentices in tough times and a recent report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills highlighted a 2% drop in apprenticeship starts in construction in the last year.

Nonetheless, we need to ensure that the knowledge and skills of our workforce are passed on to young people so that we can deliver the skills needed for economic growth.

The Positive Image campaign supports 10,925 employers who are training apprentices across a huge range of areas but we want to help even more and I would urge all employers to look at what they can do to increase the number of apprenticeship places available.

We need to be conscious of the fact that other industries are still managing to invest in apprenticeships, with the business department’s quarterly report showing that 326,700 people started apprenticeships this academic year against 279,700 in the last fiscal year.

In addition, the sector is set to miss out on a £25m boost to apprenticeships announced by the government, which will support up to 10,000 advanced and higher apprenticeship places.

So we need to make doubly sure we overtake other sectors to attract the brightest and the best talent - not be overtaken by them.

Apprenticeships are a reliable route for harnessing ambitious young workers, and UK employers have an impressive talent pool to pick from.

When we surveyed over 1,000 firms that employ apprentices or recent graduates, 65% felt that their skill levels, attitudes and work readiness, compared with what they would expect from people of this age and experience, was good or very good.

We know recovery is likely to be slow, with ONS figures showing only a 0.2% growth in the UK in the second quarter of 2011.

However, the time to prepare for the future is now and creating apprenticeships, or continuing to offer them, is one of the main ways employers can help ensure the future success of their business and the industry.

Mark Farrar is chief executive of CITB-ConstructionSkills