Britain is facing the biggest construction industry skills shortage for a generation. Whilst the government’s commitment to build more new homes is a welcome step in tackling the housing crisis, in the absence of addressing the shortage of a skilled labour, both in the planning stage and onsite, it will be a challenge to meet these targets.
The industry needs to take action and react positively to the changing nature of house building through the implementation of staff training, the retention of qualified staff coupled with recruitment programmes designed to ensure that we support the UK’s ageing and growing population with sustainable new housing stock.
Estimates show that the British construction industry requires 100,000 carpenters, 89,000 plumbers, 27,000 bricklayers and 14,000 roofers to meet the target of 400,000 new homes by the end of the decade. As well as the challenge of attracting new talent to replace the tens of thousands of builders that exited the industry in the midst of the recession, a significant proportion of those currently in the industry are also coming up to retirement age, with one in eight now over sixty.
The issues that require addressing in filling this widening gap are resonating across industry. From architects to construction workers the provision of skilled labour is a challenge. Measures to boost apprenticeships have been and are in the process of being implemented with the objective of encouraging school leavers to qualify in a trade, however funding is not the only issue. We also need to acknowledge and manage the cost in terms of time required for professionals to train and mentor new joiners in the industry.
Ministers need to ensure their top priority is providing young people with the required training and skills to support the industry whilst also acknowledging the burden that will fall on employers.
It’s not just onsite where there is an issue with resource; the pipeline of professionals coming through on the planning side is also in decline. Local authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain planners when attractive private consultancy work is available. Public opinion is rife around where developments should be focussed; everyone is in favour of development but not on their doorstep where infrastructure is at capacity and struggling to meet current demand. Resource is stretched in terms of the numbers of professionals available who are competent at making a considered decision that is appropriate for their local community.
The government is taking steps to react to the pressure on planners to push through housing quickly, by widening the scope of brownfield sites and increasing the number of projects classed as Permitted Developments. However, this is likely to impact on local infrastructure, with the social and transport requirements created by these developments needing to be addressed at the planning stage when considering new sites for housing.
The rising cost of materials as a result of reduced factory output following the recession, has seen costs in the construction industry soar. This costs increase is exacerbated by the shortage of skilled workers, which is driving up wages. Developers are paying increasingly higher salaries to secure the labour they need.
With the squeeze on costs coupled with aggressive time lines for development reduced levels of skill and expertise require an additional level of oversight from management to ensure that quality levels are not adversely affected. The objective must be to ensure that we are meeting the housing shortage with sustainable housing that is built to last.
The rise of build offsite has its advantages in terms of quality, consistency and speed of development. Properties built in a factory will have a higher level of quality control compared to a construction site, improving the performance of a building over time.
While this takes away some of the labour intensive requirements onsite, it does not negate the need for a skilled workforce. Prefabricated systems still require foundation and drainage design. An extensive list of tradesmen available on site is also required to erect the build, from roofers and tilers to electricians and plumbers.
The requirement for skilled workers is equally as important in the adoption of innovative and sometimes complicated build techniques. Professionals have to get to grips with new products flooding the market. They are also under pressure to train and monitor teams to ensure the correct application and installation. Build offsite manufacture does have advantages. From a due diligence point of view these advantages will only be realised if the build is installed properly at the outset with adequate care and attention.
The government’s new housing standards regime provides further regulations for professionals at all stages of the construction process to grasp. From October 2015 there is now a legal statutory requirement for minimum space standards, efficiency and access provisions for new homes. With an aging population and increasing pressure on social care, the standards will make it easier for new homes to be adapted for older age or disability assistance without the need for major structural works. The challenge starts long before work commences onsite, with the success of the regime relying heavily on the understanding and interpretation of the new rules and filtering this through into the planning and design stage of the development. Getting it right first time is key!
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