In June we published our Construction Skills Network (CSN) research, highlighting the need for construction to find an extra 216,800 workers by 2025.
Steve Radley is Strategy and Policy Director for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB)
Our research showed that construction will play a leading role in Britain’s post-Covid recovery, with a forecast annual 1% growth in the workforce seeing our sector return to pre-Covid levels of output next year. There’s obviously an element of risk to the forecasts, with Covid not yet beaten, and shortages of key materials causing problems. There are also big differences by sector. Infrastructure, home building and repairs, maintenance and improvement are leading growth, though will have to adapt as the government sets out its Net Zero strategy, while other areas such as industrial and commercial are expanding more slowly. But no one can deny the mood has become much more positive.
With faster growth comes greater skill pressures. We’ve known for some time that leaving the EU means growing more of our own but with many overseas workers returning home during the pandemic that challenge has been brought forward. Many of these skill needs are familiar – for example we need more woodworkers (5,500 per year), bricklayers (1,500), as well as an extra technical staff (5,150) and construction managers (3,600). But it’s not just about addressing immediate skills pressure – a range of factors including Net Zero carbon emissions, building safety and the industry’s efforts to modernise its processes are all raising the bar and creating the need for new skills or enhancing existing ones.
So does that mean we are heading for a long, hot summer of skill shortages, rising costs and project delays? With construction vacancies at a 20-year high, we can’t dismiss that risk, but nor is it inevitable. And there are reasons for optimism. For example, the crisis caused by Covid forced the different parts of construction and government to work much closer together and to look at doing things differently.
There’s always a risk that things go back to normal when the immediate crisis has passed but, perhaps because Covid’s impact was so intense and far reaching, there’s little sign so far of that happening. We can see that in the ongoing level of collaboration and energy in the Construction Leadership Council and its equivalents in Scotland and Wales. And we can see how important government sees addressing its skill needs in the way that the Construction Skills Delivery Group is powering through issues such as construction traineeships and Fast Track Apprenticeships.
CITB’s role – clearer, simpler and collaborative
So what does this mean for CITB’s role and what we have learned from the pandemic? The first thing is to be clearer on where we should lead and where industry should. For example, construction faces a major recruitment challenge and CITB can help in a number of ways.
This includes providing information on the range of career opportunities and how to progress them through Go Construct and working with employers to grow the number of opportunities to give potential new entrants a taste of what it’s like to work in construction, make them more accessible, and supporting work placements that prepare thousands of learners to work on site. But at the same time, we recognise it’s industry’s job to make construction a more attractive place to work in, with CITB supporting it by providing evidence and investing in programmes such as training mental health first aiders and growing understanding of fairness, inclusion and respect.
We also can’t support every single industry need, particularly this year when employers are paying the levy at half the normal rate. So we need to be simpler and prioritise areas where the need is greatest and where we can make a difference. For example, with apprenticeship starts down heavily during the pandemic and likely to recover only slowly this year, we are focusing on maximising the number of learners completing their apprenticeships by supporting them and their employers and targeting close to half of our funding at this area. Similarly, we will soon be announcing targeted initiatives to address four of construction’s most important skill needs, having asked the industry about its priorities earlier this year.
Finally, we need to work closely with others to meet the key skills challenges. For example, the government will soon be rolling out the first construction traineeship, developed through close work between CITB, industry groups and FE. This will help hundreds of college learners move to a job or apprenticeship in construction through a combination of work experience, helping employers to meet their skill needs and giving young people a leg up at the start of their careers.
With skills pressures emerging just as the recovery is approaching, it’s tempting to shrug your shoulders and get ready for another episode of the bust and boom cycle. But even though the coming months may see vacancy numbers rise further, we have a great chance this time to invest in the skills that will power the recovery and provide opportunities for the thousands who will be looking for work.
*Steve Radley is Strategy and Policy Director for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB)
Department of Civil Engineering https://www.ibu.edu.ba/department-of-civil-engineering/