Construction must improve image to plug housing skills gap

Wednesday 5 October 2016

The construction industry must ‘take a look at itself and change’ in order to plug a skills gap that is contributing to London missing its housing targets.

That was one of the views to emerge this morning at an NLA breakfast talk kicked off with a gloomy picture painted by Construction Products Association economist Rebecca Larkin. Larkin said the UK has not completed 200,000 homes in a year since the 1970s, when public sector housebuilding was much stronger, and that London needs to triple the 24,170 units it produced in 2015/2016 to get near to goals of 80,000 set out by mayor Sadiq Khan. But do we have the skills or materials, and what tenure will they be, she asked. Building contractors are reporting ‘sharp’ difficulties in recruiting on-site trades, and shortages are causing wages to rise, with consequent pressures on costs across the supply chain and affecting the financial viability of projects. And added to that, uncertainty around Brexit has affected workers planning to come to the UK construction industry, and there is a slowdown predicted, with a weak outlook for both public and private housing starts.

Part of the problem, said Barton Willmore architectural director Greg Greasley, is that skills levels are much higher now than 5-10 years, so training time is longer and fewer are entering the industry. But a shortage of materials – particularly brick, whose costs have risen by 8% as opposed to 2% in other materials - have added to a shortage of bricklayers. Perhaps architects should consider using other materials instead, Greasley suggested, or more could be done to spread the message about construction, including that many bricklayers can earn more than architects. ‘If government has a role in the long term it’s about changing the way in which the education system works’, he said.

Mount Anvil development director Emma Foster said that there was an important role for apprenticeships, and for schools to play in changing perceptions, and that her company was investigating how it can promote the idea of more women in construction, especially given a move away from heavy manual work to less physically challenging work and more off-site construction. High profile models could also help, said Larkin.

GLA senior housing manager, housing strategy, Alan Benson said that professions such as the fire brigade had shown that it was possible to overturn its something ‘even more macho and misogynist than the building sector’ into becoming the second most gay-friendly employer in the country, so it could be done.  And the army does a good job in portraying itself as a viable career, despite its perils. ‘The sector does need to look at itself and change’, he said. ‘We need to break down those barriers’.

Inroads could usefully be made into education, agreed the conference panel and some audience contributors, right down to primary levels, in order to attract more to what is an ‘exciting’ and diverse profession, but one which needs to be ‘sexed up’, as one questioner put it, whilst simultaneously allaying public fears about safety. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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