Ecobuild latest: Sir John Armitt and Richard Threlfall among industry leaders to highlight skills shortages at Building debate

Building debate at Ecobuild

Construction industry leaders have highlighted the sector’s growing skills shortage as the key issue for any government to address if the UK construction sector is to stay competitive in the next decade and beyond.

Speaking at a Building debate on the Agenda 15 manifesto for construction Sir John Armitt, author of an independent review of long-term infrastructure planning commissioned for the Labour party’s policy review, lamented the fact that 80% of people working in the construction industry are qualified to NVQ2 or less.

Armitt said: “We do nothing in this country to inform parents about the choices their children can make, we have to get to a point like Germany where there is as much value given to someone who has a vocational career as they do someone who has a degree.

“It’s not a one-year, not a two-year initiative, it needs a ten or twenty-year agenda.”

Richard Threlfall, UK head, infrastructure, building and construction at KPMG said the industry is under-investing due to contractors being squeezed by tight margins. “It is chronically under-investing, particularly in technology, it is plagued by low margins and is highly fragmented It is an industry with incredibly low margins and is fragmented.

“If you take the top twelve contractors the average margin is about 1%. Together they are making a net operating loss. Is it any surprise that they are not investing?”

Steve Cooper, executive vice president of Skanska Infrastructure Development, said the construction group - which is looking to grow by 15% in 2015 - increasingly finds applicants with the skills they need from the US, and not the UK: “Skills are a big worry in our business. A lot of the time the skills are in the US and other markets, and it’s important for the UK to stay competitive we have to create an environment where we can bring these skills back to the UK.

“We certainly see hotspots in the UK where it is impossible to find the right labour, which is a nightmare when you have signed a contract for a project which needs to be delivered.”