How can the construction industry attract young people and fill the skills gap?

Posted by Derek Mason

7th January 2020

The skills gap in the construction sector in the UK is well documented. There are not enough skilled tradespeople such as bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and electricians, and the rate of recruitment is not keeping up with the rate of retirement.

And this is only expected to get worse, especially since 7% of those in the industry are EU nationals, and more may leave due to fears around Brexit.

Trades are not the only skills we are short of. Parents push bright children towards careers in medicine, finance or law, without even considering engineering, project management or surveying. With the result being that there are roles that remain persistently unfilled.

Last year, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) reported that the industry needs to find more than 157,000 new recruits by 2021 to keep up with demand. And one of the key ways that industry and government plan to tackle this is through apprenticeships.

But what is the best way to encourage young people to consider a career in the construction industry?

Ryan Johnson, Campus Director for STEM and Construction at Stoke on Trent College, suggests that a key factor is the environment.

He believes, “As the UK focuses on renewable energy, projects like the District Heat Networks will create new jobs and an opportunity for young people to skill up in new areas of construction.”

The presence of more prominent campaigners right now, including David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, means that environmental issues are front of mind for many young people.

New courses have been developed by colleges, including the A-Level equivalent BTEC course in Construction and the Built Environment at Stoke-on-Trent College.

But attracting applicants for these courses can be a challenge. When you are apparently surrounded by tech start-ups and other entrepreneurial ventures, the trades can be seen as old fashioned.

Yet with the dawning of digital skills in the construction world, such as Buildings Information Modelling (BIM), and the chance to build a more eco-conscious infrastructure in the UK, youngsters hoping for a more sustainable future should be looking to this sector.

By secondary school, it may be too late. The sector needs to inspire children at a young age – going into primary schools and giving children a taste of what the construction sector can deliver.

Though it will take time, this approach seems likely to give us the best chance of closing the skills gap. And it also provides an opportunity to attract more girls and women to the sector.

The 2019 A Level results demonstrate that fewer girls are taking maths and sciences. Some research shows that confidence is a factor, and that girls are put off by the idea of being in a male-dominated classroom and career. It may be difficult to make progress in this area, but tackling it is important.

As some of you may know, my daughter, Christa, graduated in 2019 with a degree in Civil Engineering, something that I am very proud of. She grew up in an environment where engineering was talked about and she even helped me a bit in the early days when I started Super Structures Associates, even helping with choosing the name of the company. She was good at maths at school and grew up in an environment where engineering was seen as a viable career choice. We gave her the support and encouragement when she asked for it or needed further information to enable her to make her own decision. This is just one example of where a suitable environment has encouraged a young person to pursue a career in engineering.

What do you think? What else should we be doing to close the skills gap?

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