Principal Thoughts: Is the skills crisis sitting on a Brexit-shaped time bomb?

Posted on: 30 October, 2017

Why it’s more imperative than ever to address the Built Environment talent gap

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. This time, Ashley looks at the worsening skills crisis in light of a looming Brexit – and shares thoughts from the industry on what could help plug the gap.

The UK’s skills shortage is continuing to increase as we move further towards Brexit. Research by the Local Government Association, which represents councils across England and Wales, predicts that by 2024, there will be 4.2 million highly skilled jobs that cannot be filled and that the skills shortage could cost £90 billion a year.

Some UK businesses are already finding it harder to recruit skilled staff for professional roles, especially in certain sectors – the Built Environment being one of them. It may be a very exciting and innovative time for the sector – but if it’s to continue its current expansion and economic growth, then an available and talented workforce is critical. Currently, about one-fifth of all vacancies in construction remain hard to fill, and the industry has struggled to gain momentum since the June 2016 Brexit referendum – with the situation only set to get worse.

A recent OnePoll survey commissioned by RICS found that output from the UK construction market is expected to grow over the next 12 months, but 53 per cent of workers and managers are concerned skills shortages are a serious challenge – and that they are set to worsen as we progress closer to Brexit.

The construction industry has been particularly vocal around the risks of Brexit since the referendum, due to its high proportion of international workers. It’s estimated that eight per cent of the UK’s construction workers are EU nationals, accounting for some 176,000 individuals. Barry Cullen, RICS Future Talent Director, commented, “With Britain set to leave the European market we must ensure that we are not left in a skills vacuum.”

At UCEM, we recently held a Built Environment Skills Summit to gather influential figures within the sector – from organisations such as RICS, CIOB, BRE, the Cabinet Office and CITB – to discuss the key skills issues and collaborate on how to best to solve them. All participants were unanimous in the view that more needs to be done to urgently address the ever-growing skills crisis.

So what can be done?

  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: the whole sector needs to join the debate, and it should present a more unified and coherent voice to the UK’s decision-makers. It’s the responsibility of everyone in the Built Environment to work together to make our sector an attractive place to be a part of, help achieve both quantity and quality in future talent, and close the skills gap.
  • Vocational – and continuing – education: this will be key to ensuring skilled talent continues to enter and develop in all areas and levels of the sector. Workplace experience and industry knowledge are essential for helping individuals join the sector – and continued learning is imperative for companies to enhance effectiveness, retain talent and cope in a rapidly changing world.
  • Widen participation: In light of the ageing workforce, as well as a dearth of true diversity, we need to better attract, educate and recruit a wider range of qualified professionals at all levels. While it may appear that the sector is becoming more diverse, it will take a very long time for this younger generation to flow up into more senior roles and start having an influence. There are plenty of candidates with experience and senior level skills who could make a difference in the Built Environment; we just need to reach out to them.

At the Skills Summit, we found consensus across the room that there’s a problem and everyone was determined to address the issue and offer solutions. My plea to the entire Built Environment sector is please don’t disengage from this issue; we need your ongoing support.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector. The Skills Summit group will develop a draft paper on the issues with the aim of raising awareness of the potential solutions, establishing a more cogent working relationship with government, and increasing the number of participants in the sector.

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