Tackling the construction skills shortage ‘time bomb’


William Burton, interim chief executive at CITB explains the importance of up-skilling the next generation of workers to meet growth in the construction sector

As the UK construction sector is beginning to turn a corner, the time to recruit new employees to replace more than 400,000 retiring workers and offset a skills ‘time bomb’ is now. Recent reports from the Markit/CIPS Index show that the construction industry has not only grown again for the fifth consecutive month, but that it is outperforming other UK sectors in re-balancing the economy.  While this is positive news for the industry as a whole, labour market intelligence published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), shows that the UK construction sector is facing a skills ‘time bomb’. Indeed, the industry needs to replace almost 1 in 5 of the current working population in the next 5-10 years – equivalent to just over 400,000 people.

Additionally, the figures also show the industry is suffering with a shortage of young people coming into the industry, with the number of 16-35 year olds making up just over a third of the sector’s workforce and just 10% of those aged under 25. Ignoring this growing obstacle is no longer an option and it is now imperative that employers do all they can to up-skill the next generation of workers and ensure that the level of skills within the sector is sufficient to meet the growing demand.

As an industry that is larger than the financial services sector, construction is a vital engine for the country’s economic growth. In fact, it returns £2.84 for every £1 invested in it, so has the ability to kick-start a very strong recovery. However, without a pipeline of skilled workers to deliver planned projects, the sector may be unable to fulfill its potential.

Many of you will remember the skills shortages that plagued the industry in the early to mid 2000s, before the economic downturn really hit hard, and urgent action is now needed to make sure we do not end up in the same situation in the next couple of years.

To address the issue, CITB, the Industry Training Board and Sector Skills Council, is working hard to change the image of the industry and deliver training to meet the skills needed and bring fresh blood into the construction sector. We must get young people interested in construction while they are still at school; ensuring that we tap into the pipeline of talent and begin to influence where it matters – in the classrooms.

On that basis, we have a network of Construction Ambassadors working across the country, who are experienced industry professionals ‘on the ground’ in secondary schools, sharing their positive experiences with pupils – with the aim of inspiring them to see the wide range of opportunities that construction offers. Then, once interest in the industry is secured, it is our role to provide the skills and training the industry needs. It’s imperative that the qualifications and training provided to young people are as good as they can be.

Last year, CITB supported over 17,000 construction apprentices and delivered more than 3000 into jobs. Furthermore, the National Construction College – the training arm of CITB – is the leading construction training provider in Europe, delivering qualifications to meet the needs of employers across the sector.

We must also recognise that construction is a constantly evolving sector, and its training infrastructure must also evolve to meet changing needs. That’s why, based on a consensus that many young people were entering the industry without enough academic acumen to complement their practical skills, we have been a driving force behind the creation of the West Midlands Construction University Technical College (WMCUTC).

Developed in partnership with a large number of industry stakeholders, the WMCUTC will provide a ‘vocademic’ style of education – combining practical skills with key GCSE’s and work placements to ensure that its graduates have a good blend of attributes. The institution opens its doors in September 2014 for its first cohort of 14-19 students.

As young people begin employment in the industry, we believe it is fundamentally important that businesses are able to take control of their own training needs. With this in mind, CITB offers training grants to construction firms to ensure the long-term growth and development of their staff. Indeed, last year, CITB provided more than £78m in grants and helped hundreds of employers to create training plans to meet their skills needs.

Our various initiatives will undoubtedly help to ward off the possible skills shortages, but local authorities also have an important part to play. A client-based approach can also assist with achieving the outcomes for apprenticeships, employment and skills. It is an industry-backed blueprint which provides best practice guidance for those responsible for procuring construction work, and even ensures that skills legacies are created in local areas once work is completed on construction projects.

Finally, the government’s ‘city deals’ programme provides a massive opportunity for councils in major cities to enhance the skills of the local construction industry. Later this month, CITB will launch its Joint Investment Strategy for the core cities (Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield) facilitating greater working partnerships between the public and private sectors. This unique process will give local business the ‘know how’ when it comes to gaining access to funding to overcome skills issues specific to their area, and every £1 committed by one side will be matched by the other – effectively doubling the investment in local employment and skills.

Construction is one of this country’s greatest industries, employing around three million people and providing some 8% of GDP. To preserve this position, we must be sure to take every action available to diffuse the ticking ‘time bomb’ of skills.


William Burton

Interim Chief Executive




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