The UK’s further education system should retrain older workers to help tackle the skills crisis in the construction sector, according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).
CITB chief executive Tim Balcon called for a greater focus on developing skills “for all ages and all people” in the further education sector – rather than focusing on traditional subjects for younger learners.
“We need an age-friendly skills system [as] it’s [currently] very much focused at the young people coming out of schools and universities,” he told members of the Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee on Tuesday (21 February).
Further education colleges are part of the answer but have their “hands tied behind their back” because of the way they are funded, he said.
“Further education tends to work more on an educational basis and it’s mainly focused on younger people – it’s about correcting some of the things the education system didn’t give them, such as English and maths,” he said.
“But employers want the skills – they want people who can go on site and do a job, and that needs to be strengthened.”
Skills training should also be easier to navigate and more accessible to older workers looking to move into a different industry, he added.
“Sometimes engaging with the skills system becomes impenetrable for people that have been out of the education and training system for a long time,” Balcon said.
The CITB has dedicated resources to addressing these issues in the construction sector, he added, but the key is helping training centres connect potential workers with employers.
“People don’t want training, they want a job – training is a means to an end,” said Balcon. “It’s about making that supply chain between people and a job a little bit shorter and closer together.”
The BEIS select committee, which interviewed Balcon as part of its inquiry into the post-pandemic UK labour market, heard that the construction industry needs 250,000 skilled people to enter it every year.
On top of the usual cycle of those entering and leaving the construction sector, the industry has lost 120,000 people since the pandemic, Balcon said.
“The industry is looking for skilled people and I don’t think it’s particularly concerned where those skills come from as long as they have the skills for the industry.”
Although some of the more visible parts of the industry are physically demanding, there are a “huge variety” of roles within the sector that would be appropriate for a wide range of workers, including over-50s, he said.
“We tend to think of construction as the hard hat and the boots we see on site but actually there are loads of opportunities… in a wide range of activities.”
Balcon said it should be easier for experienced workers to move into mentoring roles that would allow younger people to benefit from their expertise.
“That transition for people who do have a very physically demanding role into other areas of construction to provide that mentoring and pass on that experience is a really important part of this conundrum.”
Greater flexibility could also help to retain older people considering early retirement, he added, citing the current discussion over the merits of a four-day working week.
“It’s utilising the capabilities of people with that experience to better support the younger people coming through.”