Why the construction industry needs to investigate alternative paths to entry to address the ongoing pain of skills shortages, by Emma Dickson

15/06/2022

Employers in the construction industry in Scotland hardly need to be reminded of the skills shortages which are hampering the industry as it continues to focus on recovery – shortages which are coming close to threatening the sector’s long-term health.

The fact that demand for skills is outstripping supply is not by any stretch of the imagination a new problem but, as infrastructure and building companies enter 2022 with workloads at their highest levels for 10 years, it is certainly retaining pole position in the typical employer’s list of worries.

Added to the nagging concerns of soaring prices, supply chain issues and materials scarcity, the ongoing struggle to secure and retain quality tradespeople is turning what should be a boom period for the industry into just another everyday nightmare.

But, rather than dwelling on what seems an increasingly difficult problem, discerning employers are challenging themselves, along with industry bodies and associations, to search for alternative, realistic solutions.

The first step, perhaps, is to look at what is actually working. The industry can be quietly proud of the way it supported apprentices over the Covid years, even though there was a backlog at the end of last year of around 1,000 who had still to qualify.

However, it takes time – four years, typically – and significant dedication to bring school leavers through traditional apprenticeship routes; there can be a drop-out rate of around 35% in some craft trades; and, while they may be very well trained, many do not have the life experience of more mature employees.

Though this is not intended in anyway to diminish the traditional entryway, some employers are also looking to take on older, with longer work histories, and offer them different, shorter apprenticeships on the grounds that they know what is expected of them and that, if they are keen to learn, they will progress quickly.

Of course, some employers may feel that taking on learners is an expensive option, even though there is significant financial help with training costs these days. In cases such as these, they could perhaps consider shared apprenticeships, which can work with a regional approach.

These schemes allow companies who may not be in a position to offer full-term training to dip in and out, with durations as short as three months, thus supporting the development of skills but with no commitment at the end. Apprentices in these circumstances are found a series of placements and help with securing permanent employment on completion.

Even employers who have invested in skills and nurtured employee relationships are facing another threat in the current climate – keeping their workers on board. Basic supply and demand is pushing wages up at an unprecedented level and skilled people are very much in a seller’s market.

But while worker loyalties may be strained by tempting offers from elsewhere, responsible employees may be persuaded to exercise restraint if offered a more structured personal development plan, or a healthier work-life balance.

On the same theme, making the industry attractive to the upcoming generations can only work to employers’ advantage. Gen Z, as well as demanding better conditions and company culture, can be attracted by an organisation which has demonstrable green credentials and differentiates itself from the competition by taking environmental, social and governance seriously.

Part-time posts, rather than full-time, are a useful tool for widening the pool of people open to skills development and may well increase diversity by attracting time-limited demographics into the industry. Internships and school taster sessions will also help to generate interest.

It could, in the end, be argued that one of the most positive approaches the industry could take would be to stop being so diffident about itself and start blowing its own trumpet.

Not much recognition is given outside the sector to the fact that construction has changed out of all recognition over recent years, becoming a key component in the drive to build a stronger, fairer and greener economic future.

Employees in construction have some of the best career paths in the country, are treated with dignity and respect and have sparkling prospects for advancement. Oh yes, and the wages can be terrific.

If we can effectively get that message across, then in a few years the current pain of lack of skills could become a fading memory.

Emma Dickson is Technical Director at Arcadis and industry co-chair of the Scottish Construction Leadership Forum’s Skills and Workforce sub group.

SMEs are encouraged to share their different approaches to resolving the skills shortages by emailing Emma directly via edickson@cs-ilg.org