Tackling the skills gap head on

Patricia Moore

Managing Director, UK

To thrive, the infrastructure industry needs large scale, collaborative approaches from governments, business and academia

Governments around the world are investing in major infrastructure programmes to drive growth and prosperity. This is contributing to a forecasted growth for the global construction industry of 3.2 percent per year for the next decade. A seismic shift in strategy is needed for the right skills to be available for this unprecedented volume of work.

Skills shortages already evident

In industrialised markets, including Australia, Hong Kong, the UK and the USA, skills shortages are already an issue, with these markets facing the double challenge of an ageing workforce coupled with rising demand.

In the USA, the Associated General Contractors for America revealed that 79 percent of 1,358 firms who participated in their survey are struggling to fill craft and professional positions.

The UK’s National Infrastructure Plan for Skills stated the sector will need nearly 100,000 additional workers by 2020, with 250,000 of the existing workforce needing retraining and upskilling.

  • 100,000 additional workers needed in the UK sector by 2020
  • 3.2% growth in global construction industry per year
  • 14% females in UK construction workforce

Changing the industry’s image

Governments and businesses need to devise macro and micro strategies to tackle the industry skills gap, which includes changing the image of the industry to appeal to the next generation of workers and to women.

A survey by Hong Kong University showed that 74 percent of young people cited “demanding job nature” as a reason to avoid a career in construction, with “dangerous”, “low social status” and “lack of future prospects” also scoring significantly.

In the UK, only 14 percent of the construction workforce is female, compared to 8.9 percent in the USA and two percent in Greece. Norway has had the greatest success attracting women to the industry, with females accounting for 35 percent of their construction workforce.

Both regionally and globally the industry needs to change perceptions of the industry so construction has a positive brand and is attractive to a diverse range of people. This will widen the pool for the industry to recruit from.

Policy setting to direct investment

At a policy level, governments and big businesses can direct major contractors and their supply chains to train and grow their workforces by setting requirements around numbers and diversity.

Similarly private sector investors can motivate the construction sector to invest in developing talent through the assurances they seek on resourcing, programme and budget.

Investing based on pipeline

As soon as a pipeline of projects has been identified, industry, government and academia need to plan how the necessary volume of skilled people will be generated and maintained.

Specialist academies, such as the Singapore Contractors Association Limited (SCAL) and the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in London, have been created with this goal in mind.

Wider knowledge sharing

Technology can support skills development by widening the transfer of knowledge and enabling collaborative working so that insights and experience can be shared. Because of technology, people no longer have to travel to where expertise is located, they can be connected to expertise virtually from anywhere in the world.

Efficient working can also result from technology, giving people more time in their roles. Time saving transformations are already evident, such as algorithms being used to interrogate 4D and 5D models in a matter of days, when in the past it would have taken weeks.

Act now, or pay later

Collaborative planning, in which governments, business and academia participate is vital for the anticipated skills gap is to close. Failing to act now will mean harsh consequences later.

Infrastructure programmes will suffer from a lack of adequately skilled people. Health and safety standards will be threatened by inexperienced people being employed. The impacts on cost and time will affect both national and regional economic development objectives.

There is also a risk that without a comprehensive and collaborative approach, all the best resources will be consumed by those that are prepared to pay the most, further thwarting the resources of the industry.