Construction badly needs people with skills yet is failing to appeal both to those who have no experience of work and to those who are drawn to other industries

James Wates

In the UK there are around 250,000 households that have no experience of the world of work. That’s quite a stat: a quarter of a million households whose

occupants have never worked. This isn’t good for any aspect of the UK. Economically it’s a non-starter for a country wanting to make the running in the 21st century. Socially it is a dead weight that impacts on communities; and in terms of wasted human potential and creative energy, it’s more or less the same as holding open the door and ushering out talent with a dismissive wave.

The construction sector is, as we know, facing a bow wave of demand for skills. The economy is returning to health and now we find ourselves with a shortage of skills in areas where skills are needed most: renewing, repairing and building our infrastructure - homes, schools, roads, energy, utilities, you name it, there’s a need for it.

We’re desperate to get a pipeline of talent flowing but we’re experiencing shortages. Skills are the oxygen of our sector and so that supply needs to flow.

Building itself has long been a voice calling attention to this “hidden” demand. Those calls were prescient and, to its credit, it has stuck with this theme as a major issue facing our sector, launching its campaign around skills and diversity issues - Building a Better Balance - in May.

We need people to look at the Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai or at the Shard, and think, ‘I could leave my mark for generations to come’

At CITB, the focus of the organisation is more ruthlessly than ever on delivery of skills and training and on supporting our levy payers in getting and utilising every last scrap of training available. Part of this wider effort is mobilising campaigns such as Born to Build, launched by the UKCG last week. The sense that construction in all its forms should offer a clear career option to today’s and future generations needs to be palpable. We need to be on their career radar.

Our sector offers many routes to work - managerial, commercial, craft skills - and we’re one of the most accommodating in terms of assessing people’s existing skills and helping to develop them. There’s no question that we have issues around diversity but that’s another - albeit central - conversation.

The point about construction and skills is that we have a simple message: we’re open for business, we welcome people who want engaging, varied work and we recognise effort and diligence.

But we also have to realise that we’re not the only sector fighting for talent. We are in a battle with a wide range of sectors: law, accountancy, general management, commercials and many others all want the same quality of management that we are seeking. Fashion, retail and tech are all hunting creative problem-solving individuals and a multitude of new supporting industries around tech and micro science are all pursuing general talent to train and focus.

In order to stay in this battle, let alone have a fair share of wins, we need a clear message about why our sector is the best place for people to bring their talents. People look at an Aston Martin and say, “I’d love to design the next one”; they look at Top Shop’s new season collection and think, “I could produce that”; they look at Black Ops, the online game sensation and think, “I can imagine the updated version” (albeit with scenarios involving assassination and murder!).

We need those same people to look at the Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, or at the Shard or at a refurbished square hidden away in Manchester or Liverpool and think, “I could leave my mark for generations to come”. We want them to look at offices and schools and hospitals and to think, “I could be part of this. I can shape my own contribution to society, to my community.”

That’s our challenge as a sector - to inspire people to lend us their talents in return for a world of opportunity for those with energy and ambition. There’s no magic wand. It will mean getting in front of pupils and teachers and getting pupils and teachers in front of the sector. A variety of schemes exist to do this, but that’s not on its own enough. We need to follow things through to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s no good hoping that a visit here and there will be enough to attract the talent that we need.

Cambridge University (among others) has a tightly worked plan to attract and support students from less privileged backgrounds. It starts with a visit to an open day and then, once the student has decided to apply, the university keeps in touch with them.

Once the student has been made a provisional offer, the university still does not let go. It knows that a high percentage of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to drop out between being accepted and confirmation of A Level results. So it maintains contact and even offers mentoring. In short it stays alongside the student until they are safely inside Cambridge.

This is the kind of rigour we need to consider to be competitive with other sectors fishing in the same talent pool as we are. The quarter of a million workless households are not the only pool we can look at, but we ignore them at our peril - workless they may be, worthless they’re not.

James Wates is chairman of Wates, the CITB and UKCG