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Bridging the gap: strategies for combatting the skills shortage in construction
If we carry on as we are, in only two years’ time the construction industry will be lacking more than 200,000 workers – people needed to make sure we can continue with infrastructure projects plus commercial and residential construction.
This isn’t news to any of us in the industry, but the potential statistics for the engineering sector are even more worrying. By 2026, The Engineering Construction Industry Training Board has predicted that 91,000 engineers will have retired or be about to retire. That’s 20% of the current engineering workforce in the UK. And even if we were educating enough youngsters to replace those retiring (we’re not), there’d still be a huge, elephant-like problem.
Apprentices, graduates and junior engineers learn best on the job, by absorbing knowledge from experienced engineers. Therefore, it’s critical that we boost the number of new people coming into the industry sooner rather than later. Because once that knowledge and on-the-job experience is gone, it’s going to be much harder to train the engineers of tomorrow.
What are the answers? How can we turn the tide and get more young people into the engineering sector, before the skills and experience of the engineers due to retire are lost forever?
Getting more young people into engineering:
1 – Education: We need a concerted effort from government and schools to introduce engineering as a potential career option from a young age. Let’s inspire children with practical projects in schools, hands-on activities, and stories from real engineers about the difference they make in the work they do. I’ve written about this before here, but it’s going to take more than an annual day to encourage children into this sector. Let’s include engineering alongside other STEM subjects covered in schools, from primary school level onwards.
2 – Technology: We need to modernise. The next generation are true digital natives, but the perception of construction is that it lags behind when it comes to introducing new technologies. Even when we’re embracing tech behind the scenes, it’s not seen by the outside world. This must change.
3 – Diversity: Potential engineers may be discouraged from joining an industry where they don’t see themselves represented. According to an Engineering UK report, while women made up 47.1% of the UK workforce in 2018, only 12% of workers in engineering roles were female. And more of those were working in an engineering job outside the engineering sector (18.5%, versus 9.7% within the sector). The same report found that only 8.1% of people working in engineering were from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, compared with 18.3% of the working age population in the UK.
Another striking fact, which does not surprise me at all given my own experience of recruiting for engineers, is that fewer than half of new engineering recruits have either the necessary technical or soft skills needed for work within the industry. This was revealed in an Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) skills survey, and led the organisation to declare, “The UK skills crisis will keep growing unless government and industry take action”.
I like to think I’m playing my own part in giving engineers the skills they need. As I grow my team, I’ve encountered difficulties in recruiting the right engineers, but I’ve persevered, and we now have 5 engineers working at Super Structures Associates. I’m playing my part in training the next generation, but I’d love to see the government stepping in and acknowledging the need for a recruitment drive both in engineering and across the construction sector. It will be difficult for us to keep up with the UK’s built environment needs if we don’t.
On the plus side, although the skills shortage is not great for the industry or the country, it does mean it’s likely we’ll always be able to find work. It’s a pain when you’re recruiting, or the lack of skilled people delays a project, but there is at least one silver lining to this industry cloud.
Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.