Graham Harle is chief executive of Gleeds Worldwide
With soaring inflation and the escalating cost of materials dominating the headlines of late, another issue has been quietly chipping away at the foundation of the UK’s construction sector: an increasing shortage of labour. Even the Home Office is reportedly looking at the option of loosening restrictions on EU tradespeople coming to the UK – an unheard-of concession, which is influenced by the government’s own housing targets being totally out of reach if the current shortsighted policy on labour continues.
“Creating the built environment is still labour-intensive and we are still one of the largest employers of people”
The issue of a declining workforce is not new – we have long known that roughly 500,000 people will be leaving the industry in the next decade or so. However, more recent data flagged by the Construction Products Association shows that there has already been a loss of more than 250,000 workers in UK construction in the past few years alone, despite strong levels of activity.
Construction is not unique in this. Across Britain, the workforce as a whole has shrunk in the wake of the Covid pandemic. An estimated 575,000 people have withdrawn, with a large number of those taking early retirement. Figures for retirement among 50 to 64-year-olds have surged across the board. The issue specific to our sector is that construction is not enticing people in at the same rate as it is losing them.
The UK Trade Skills Index 2023 estimates that the UK needs to attract more than 900,000 tradespeople to keep up with demand over the next 10 years, suggesting that nearly a quarter of a million of those should be qualified apprentices if we’re going to prevent the emerging skills gap from widening. That represents a massive 34 per cent increase on the number of people completing construction apprenticeships today.
Let’s take just one element of the sector that is being heavily affected as an example: housing. Construction of new homes is due to fall to its lowest level since the second world war, with the supply of new housing likely to fall below 120,000 homes annually over the coming years. To put it into perspective, that’s way below the 300,000-new-homes target mentioned in the Tory manifesto at the last general election and less than half the homes we require.
Creating the built environment is still labour-intensive and, even with the growth of offsite manufacturing, onsite 3D printing and modern methods of construction, we are still one of the largest employers of people.
Clearly, we need to do more to actively encourage all young people to consider jobs in construction but, perhaps crucially, we really need to start tapping into the pool of female talent that exists. Historically, businesses operating in our space are ‘male heavy’, so addressing the balance at graduate stage would, we hope, go some way to tipping the scale towards greater gender parity in the long run.
As it stands, Office for National Statistics figures show women currently account for less than 15 per cent of the UK construction workforce. Given that the 2021 Census revealed women make up 51 per cent of the population in England and Wales, we are surely missing a trick by failing to encourage more women into the industry. Of those who have made construction their home, the vast majority remain in admin and secretarial roles (80.3 per cent of which are done by women), or sales and marketing positions (43.9 per cent). Women make up 1.3 per cent of skilled trades – representing an increase of just 0.3 per cent over the past decade. We need to do more, and we need to do it quickly.
Working on our message
Ours is not the only sector with labour shortages and, in the consultancy space at least, we compete with accountancy, law, management consultants and many other white-collar professions that offer soft benefits and hard cash to combat the talent drought. But, as companies in the industry collaborated so successfully during Covid, we should be coming together now to fund a rebrand of the built environment.
We need to be promoting ourselves as a great place to work for all, targeting schools and universities, and taking our messaging to young people in ways that are accessible to them, using social media and hiring influencers in our space to talk the industry up.
We’re teetering on the edge of the abyss – before long it will be labour, or the lack thereof, that is the greatest barrier to achieving the UK’s ambitious homebuilding, net zero and infrastructure delivery targets. We need to address this failure to attract new talent, now.