The clock is ticking on a demographic time bomb

Ruth Scarrott is head of careers at the National Federation of Roofing Contractors.

When I started at the NFRC last year, it soon became clear to me why they created the position of head of careers – the roofing and cladding industry, like the wider construction industry, is crying out for new talent.

Throughout 2021, recruitment outpaced material availability as a top concern for NFRC members and, by the end of the year, 74 per cent reported experiencing recruitment difficulties, according to the NFRC/Glenigan State of the Roofing Industry Survey for Q4 2021.

Material vs labour challenges, 2021

The graph shows the net score given by firms on whether labour recruitment and material availability had worsened at different times throughout 2021

Skill shortages in roofing are not new, but with each year that passes – and following the effects of Brexit and uncertainty around COVID – construction’s demographic time bomb ticks ever closer to zero.

To put the crisis in perspective, it is estimated around 14 per cent of roofers are over 55 – that’s roughly 8,000 roofers who will be retiring over the next 10 years or so, or around 800 a year. In terms of new talent coming in, so far during this academic year there are only 160 people on the sector-leading Roofing Trailblazer apprenticeship scheme. You can see the maths won’t add up and if we don’t do something radical soon, skill shortages will only be exacerbated.

Contractors want to hire young talent

The good news is that there is a clear appetite among roofing contractors to hire young people. We recently asked our members if they planned to recruit any 16- to 24-year-olds in 2022 and 61 per cent told us they did. Of these, over a third (36 per cent) are planning to recruit using an apprenticeship, and 31 per cent intend to provide informal training.

If we took our members’ commitments at face value, we could be seeing 2,600 young people being recruited into the roofing industry in 2022, some 1,750 of whom would be on a formal training programme. So, the employer appetite is there.

“The old ways of finding people to work for a construction firm simply do not apply any more”

Why aren’t these commitments being translated into reality? In roofing, there are several historical structural barriers, most notably sparse training provision. Throughout the UK there are only 12 training providers that cover roofing occupations, often specialising in only one or two disciplines; if there isn’t a training provider in your local area, you would need to send your apprentices on block release for formal training. This is clearly a barrier to many employers.

Then there is the issue of attracting young people to work in the industry. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of 22- to 29-year-olds in ‘construction and the building trades’ was 3.1 per cent in 2011 and this had fallen to 2.5 per cent by 2017.

Underlying this is the ongoing belief among many young people and their influencers that you have to go to university to get a well-paid job – unsurprising, after previous government targets aimed to get half of young people into higher education. While government rhetoric on this has changed in recent years, the perception remains.

There is a disconnect between young people and the reality of what a career in roofing can offer, including the monetary rewards. There are deep-rooted perceptions about what the roofing sector is, and this affects young people’s views and parents’ influence on their children’s career choices.

Recruitment plans for 2022

The data shows the proportion of firms planning to recruit 16 to 24-year-olds and the proportion that are planning to use particular training schemes (some plan to use more than one)

The data shows the proportion of firms planning to recruit 16 to 24-year-olds and the proportion that are planning to use particular training schemes (some plan to use more than one)

What can be done?

At NFRC, we are doing our bit through our Roofing Careers Service, which gives employers and young people information on careers in roofing, training opportunities and guidance on initiatives to advertise and apply for jobs, linking in with government and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). There has also been a renewed drive to upskill the existing workforce through RoofCert accreditation, to provide individual roofers with proof of their roofing skills, and to build confidence that roofing is a professional industry with high standards of craftsmanship.

The old ways of finding people to work for a construction firm simply do not apply any more. KPMG recently found that Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2000) most value earning power and job security, and want to pursue multiple career paths at the same time. A simple step of advertising new entrant opportunities openly will attract applications, especially if job adverts take into consideration what the people they are trying to hire value, and then reflect that in their work environment. What a 21-year-old woman values will be entirely different to a 55-year-old man.

The industry can’t get out of this crisis alone. Historical reductions in accessible training provision have hit the opportunity to attract new talent hard. We urge the CITB to work with industry to grow training provision for apprentices and trainees, to meet the clear demand for skills. We also urge them to plough ahead with the support services offered to employers to recruit more talent (Talentview Construction and the Talent Retention Scheme are two desperately needed recent examples).

The government must re-examine the apprenticeship levy and create more flexibility in the system. While it is welcome that large employers can now transfer their levy down the supply chain, in reality, this is often more bother than it’s worth. The government should explore more innovative ways of pooling resources from our industry to ensure funding gets to the right places.

Construction rose to the challenges posed by COVID-19; there is no reason why it can’t do the same to tackle the ongoing skill shortages we are seeing. The appetite from employers is there to take on new talent, but we need to change the way we do things – not only industry, but the CITB and government, too. If we don’t, we simply won’t have enough people.

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