There are twice as many building services lecturers as students in the group above. By 2002, the course will have disappeared. It is one of a growing group of construction degrees closing because of a lack of applicants while employers are reporting a dearth of graduates to fill jobs. In the first of a series, Building investigates the construction industry’s recruitment crisis.

“The University of Northumbria produces 20-30 built environment graduates a year. This year, it had 150 employers clamouring to recruit them.” So says John Bale, chair of the Construction Industry Council’s education and professional development forum. The disparity between supply and demand for built environment professionals, a feature of the industry over the past few years, has now reached crisis point.

Not only are jobs outnumbering qualified applicants but, on many degree courses, teaching staff are outnumbering students, causing them to close. A 20% fall-off rate in applications to built environment courses in the past four years has also prompted universities to accept applicants with lower grades. The drop continues a trend that started in the early 1990s.

In the CIC’s education manifesto published this month, Bale warned that the recruitment crisis will affect standards of construction quality, safety, cost and service delivery. This, in turn, will damage the industry’s international competitiveness. “It is a vicious circle,” he says.

Building services is too general a term – you see it on the side of skips

Richard John, Chairman, Cibse

“If you don’t get good people into the industry, you are never going to achieve the improvements set out in Rethinking Construction, increase your profit margins or improve the knowledge base of the industry.”

Now, after years of refusing to acknowledge that there was a problem, the industry seems to be sitting up and taking notice. Professional bodies, including the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers and the Chartered Institute of Building, have established working groups with universities and employers to tackle the issue together. “Instead of make-do and mend, we need serious action,” says CIBSE chairman Richard John.

Some industry observers see construction’s recruitment crisis as a repercussion of the early 1990s recession, when job insecurity dissuaded students from embarking on long courses in construction disciplines.

We have to convince schools that engineering can be creative, flamboyant

Tanya Ross, Buro Happold

However, degree courses in architecture, interior design, town planning and landscape architecture continue to be oversubscribed. This makes another theory more plausible: certain construction disciplines have an image problem among school leavers, and building services engineering, construction management and surveying have been hardest hit.

A dearth of applicants has forced the universities of Loughborough, Reading and Hertfordshire to stop admitting new students to their building services engineering courses from this year, despite the efforts of staff to promote them. The courses at Bath and Coventry have already closed. The structure of the government’s funding regime for universities means courses with a low student-to-staff ratio quickly become uneconomical to run.

CIBSE’s John says the fall-off in applicants has been “greatly exacerbated and the crisis accelerated” by the introduction a year ago of SARTOR, the European standard on registration, which means that engineering students have to study for four or five years instead of three to reach chartered status. John also acknowledges that building services has a poor profile in schools and sixth-form colleges. “Architecture and civil engineering have a certain pizzazz, but building services engineering has an image problem. I think it is because building services is too general a term – you see it on skips. It does not reflect what we do. We need to get across the influence we have on the form, construction, installation, glazing, daylighting and acoustic performance of buildings. We should be called building environmental engineering or building mechanical and electrical engineering.”

Hopefully, the influence of Bob the Builder will start to show in 20 years’ time

John Bale, Cic Education Forum

Tanya Ross, a building services engineer and partner in Buro Happold, agrees: “You are dealing with a potential audience swamped with new media glamour. We have to convince schools that an engineer is not a man in a boiler suit with a spanner who’s come to fix the boiler. It can be creative, flamboyant, with a physical result you can touch and say, ‘I built that’.”

The collapse in university applications cannot be wholly blamed on the industry’s image problem. Insufficient long-term investment in on- and off-the-job education and training has added to the problem. “Because the construction industry has low profit margins, not many people invest in education and research, but these are crucial to the future of the industry,” says John.

Suren Surendran, programme tutor at the University of Hertfordshire’s building services engineering course, agrees. “The industry needs to sponsor students through the courses if it wants them to stay open,” he says. “They are highly priced products. But there is always cost-cutting in the industry. There is no fat left to spread around.” The CIC’s Bale has arranged a meeting between the council and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, with a view to getting industry sponsorship for new high-profile courses that will attract the best students.

We should all go into schools. It is creating the contact, sowing the golden seed

Padraic Kelly, Buro Happold

CIC chairman Graham Watts says the recruitment crisis has highlighted the need for firms to invest in retraining existing staff. “If you need 4000 engineers and the education system is only producing 1500, where are the others going to come from?” he asks. “You can either get them from abroad, as happened at the end of the 1980s when the industry overheated, or you can get some of them by retraining staff via the National Vocational Qualification movement, which the CIC administers for the industry. Then you could have architects who could work as building services engineers and technicians who could transfer their skills.”

The government is urging construction employers to tackle the image and training issues by subscribing to its Respect for People initiative, launched in September 1999. The Respect for People working group, headed by Movement for Innovation chair Alan Crane, is developing a code of practice that it expects to have ready by this September. The code is intended to benchmark working environment and site conditions, health and safety, craft skills, process management and people skills from entrant to management level. It will also encourage the recruitment of more women and people from ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, the Housing Forum has just set up a working group, chaired by consultant Sandi Rhys Jones, dedicated to researching the “three Rs – recruitment, retention and respect”. Charmaine Young, director of regeneration at housebuilder St George and deputy chair of the working group, says: “We are only drawing on a small proportion of the available workforce. We are going to look at all the industry initiatives to increase the diversity of the workforce to identify gaps and barriers to their success.” The Housing Forum group plans to hold a conference on its findings in London in November.

The fragmented nature of the construction industry precludes it from adopting the measure taken by nursing, teaching, the police and the armed forces to tackle recruitment crises – national advertising campaigns funded by their public sector client, the government. In any case, Crane contends, national advertising would be in danger of being hijacked by anti-cowboy programming. “There is no point in going on TV to talk about how wonderful we are until we have sorted out working conditions and the other Respect for People objectives,” he says.

Padraic Kelly, a managing partner in Buro Happold, is sceptical about the impact of such intangible initiatives. He says more firms need to visit schools: “We should all go into schools. It is the practical stuff on the ground more than industry initiatives that will make a difference. It is creating the contact, sowing the golden seed.” He adds: “If everyone made a concerted effort and we targeted three times as many students as we do now, we could change the industry in three to five years.”