Survey reveals that recruitment is a problem despite wholesale redundancies and a drop in workload

Contractors continue to face skills shortages despite falling workloads and having fewer roles to fill compared to the boom years, the latest CIOB research reveals.

In an online survey completed by 1,182 members, most working at management or director level, 76.6% said skills shortages were a problem (compared to 93% in last year’s survey). Meanwhile, 78.4% predicted that skills shortages would increase in 2009/2010, whereas only 57% said this would be the case last year.

Respondents blamed this predicted future skills drop on job cuts and a lack of employment opportunities (71.4%), a reduction in the number of available apprenticeships (54.6%), and a lack of students entering the industry (50.9%). Notably, 53.7% said their companies had had to make redundancies in the past year.

The findings tally with the experience of some HR departments: ‘People aren’t recruiting at graduate or apprentice level at the same volume they were a year ago and the situation is only going to get worse,’ said Carole O'Neil, director of HR and training at Midlands contractor Cundalls. ‘I think many people will also choose to leave the industry after redundancy and pursue other careers.’

However, others disagree with the CIOB’s findings. ‘In the short-term the skills shortage has lessened. There’s less workload, but the same level of skills out there so theoretically there should be more people available for roles,’ says Jeremy Galpin, group skills and development manager at Costain. ‘We’re continuing to recruit for a range of management and engineering roles and we don’t expect it to be as difficult filling them as 12-18 months ago.’

The survey paints a bleak picture of the industry’s future. It found that 74.2% of respondents thought the economic climate would make skills shortages more of a problem in the long term, mainly because it would damage the stability of the industry and reduce the number of students wanting a career in construction. Meanwhile, 76.7% said the expected loss of skills brought on by the recession would also hinder the industry’s recovery.

‘The economic climate will bring negative impacts, on people’s perception of the industry for example,’ agrees Galpin, but there are positives, he adds. ‘Construction is a generator for growth and part of the government’s plan to turn the economy around. There will be significant investment in major projects like Crossrail, the Olympics, schools and hospitals, which will encourage people to join the industry.’

Bill Munn, head of HR and training at contractor Thomas Vale, recently nominated for a Constructing Excellence award for leadership in people development, says his firm is continuing to invest in recruitment and training in preparation for the post-recession uplift.

‘It takes confidence to invest at a time when boardrooms are looking at other options, but it will help us meet future challenges,’ says Munn. ‘Contractors need confidence in themselves, in the industry and in the nation to invest now and meet future challenges.’

The survey also revealed declining prospects for graduates. Although 74.3% of respondents said their companies wanted to recruit graduates with cognate degrees, 29.2% said the current economic climate had forced them to stop actively recruiting.

‘We’re not recruiting graduates at the same level we were last year, although we’re trying to maintain links with universities and investing in bursaries for undergraduates, as these people are the future of our business,’ says O’Neil.

But Galpin says Costain is commited to long-term graduate recruitment and is taking on 50 graduates this year. ‘It’s essential in difficult times that you maintain that commitment and bring good people through into an organisation,’ he concludes.

"76.6% said skills shortages are still a problem"

"53.7% said they had to make redundancies last year"