Construction skills shortage: the sleeping giant that is waking up

Blame COVID, or Brexit. Blame the reputation of the industry, or the lack of Government support. Maybe blame a bit of everything; but, whatever the reason, the construction industry is in crisis.

Material shortages are hitting the headlines constantly; not just in trade journals, but in the national news as well. But there is another sleeping giant that is waking quickly: the skills shortage.

This is nothing new. For many years, construction reports have warned that the effects of an ageing workforce, low levels of new entrants and the damage induced by regular recessions will have a debilitating effect on the industry. According to the 2011 Census, 68% of those in construction employment were aged 35 or over, with just 11% aged 16 to 24.

Source: RIBAJ

Brexit and COVID have worked hand-in-hand to exacerbate an already dire situation, with demand for construction workers now at a 20-year high. The latest State of Trade Survey from the Federation of Master Builders found that 53% of builders are struggling to hire carpenters, and 47% are unable to source bricklayers, in the context of higher numbers of enquiries for work. Furlough, career changes during a pandemic, and a return of EU workers to home countries has had a sharp effect on the industry, with the ONS reporting that the construction industry had 100,000 fewer workers in the first quarter of 2021 than in the same period a year earlier, at 2.22m.

In June 2021, the CITB warned that the industry required 216,800 new workers by 2025 just to keep up with current demand. That’s over 50,000 opportunities a year; but with young people opting for careers in more attractive industries, the risk is that these vacancies will remain just that: vacant.

Research by the Construction Leadership Council in May 2019 found that just 7% of 16-18 year-olds were considering a career in the construction sector, with a lack of awareness of the variety of roles within the industry, and 27% of those surveyed saying that their parents would discourage them from a career in construction.

Although an ageing workforce is not a problem confined to the UK or just the construction industry, the scale of the problem is particularly acute in UK construction.


So, what can be done? First and foremost, the industry needs to tackle its poor reputation. Young people do not find the construction sector attractive, and women face multiple barriers to entry, as well as low retention levels.

It starts with education. The variety of roles and opportunities available within the construction industry is vast; it’s not all about manual labour in freezing weather. It can and is a lucrative sector to work in, with job satisfaction levels which exceed many other industries. There are few things more fulfilling than seeing a development completed in front of your eyes, being able to reach out and touch it, and knowing you have made a tangible contribution.

Inclusion and diversity also need to be increased immediately. With an ageing employee base comes the retention of outdated views which often discourages and excludes women and ethnic minorities. At a time when there is a shortage of resource, the net needs to be widened as much as possible, and prehistoric views extinguished.

Companies also need to work to retain the staff they have. It’s no secret that recessions hit the industry cyclically and regularly, and each time they do, more people are lost from the sector. Businesses need to invest in their people, improve training, and progress good employees.

More often than not, the construction industry has relied on ‘muddling through’. The time for this has passed; for the sake of the industry, action is needed now, to correct an issue that will not just simply go away.

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