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Industry view: Building to to avoid the skills gap

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There is no shortage of debate about the skills shortage facing the oil and gas industry in the north-east of Scotland, but it is not the only sector at risk of haemorrhaging skilled workers in the near future.

The construction industry is currently faced with a workforce rapidly approaching retirement age while, due to the recession, companies have put a freeze on recruitment, meaning a massive skills void is very much a reality.

It is my feeling that the industry has missed an opportunity by failing to adequately plan for the future during the economic downturn and requires to take innovative action to address the issue.

Businesses are now panicking as the industry’s skills shortage starts to bite with a large percentage of the workforce set to start claiming their pensions and fewer construction management graduates coming through from universities and colleges. While the recession has hit the industry extremely hard there is still an annual recruitment rate of construction managers in the UK of over 3,000 according to the latest market research by the Construction Skills Network.

The number of managers that are required, compared with the number retiring and leaving the industry, means there is a skills shortage in that particular role which will only increase in the near future.

In addition, the latest set of figures to be released by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) predicts that 182,000 construction jobs are set to be created in the next five years across the UK, with almost 30,000 of those in Scotland.

Due to the cyclical nature of the construction industry this situation is not a new phenomenon. So why does it come as such a shock to an industry which is capable of planning and programming the most complex of projects? It seems we are incapable of identifying a sustainable strategy for a sector whose health is critical to the nation.

In the past we have come up with excuses as to why we have not managed to implement the necessary changes, pointing the finger at the government for failing to give firm commitments as to when projects will start on site and clients for not wanting to pay a fair price, decrying the quality of subcontractors and the fragmented state of the industry. The problems have been well documented in numerous reports over the years, as have the suggested solutions – but no advances are made because the industry continues to refuse ownership of the situation.

It is essential that we start working together to minimise the potential effect of the skills gap. The industry needs to start making itself a more attractive proposal for school leavers as it comes out of recession and commit to training up the next generation of workers.

A good starting point, and in my opinion one of the most effective way of doing this, is for SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) to link up with colleges and universities in order to directly access those that will be entering the industry in the next four years. At Robert Gordon University (RGU), we have seen a huge amount of interest in our postgraduate course in construction project management this year, as we see people who are already within the industry look to further their careers and step up into the skills gap.

However, the industry needs to attract new blood in, and fostering links with the education sector is one of the ways to do it – there needs to be a realisation that there will be a significant time lag between students starting courses now and the point at which they are industry-ready.

Companies do not want to employ someone who has no hands on experience, and equally we want graduates to come out of RGU at the end of four years with the best possible set of skills to enable them to do their job well.

I want to invite construction companies to look at how they can engage with universities and colleges, from a fairly low level such as simply running workshops and presentations through to committing to taking on a student one day a week throughout their degree to give them a vital grounding in the practicalities of the job.

Businesses can then be confident of getting a return on their investment – an employee who is not only well versed in the newest construction management methods and policies, but who is also well equipped to step onto a building site and know how things work.

 

Rob Leslie is the course leader for the MSc Construction Project Management at Robert Gordon University (RGU) and a former Chair of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) in Scotland

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