Building skills

Clay Technology magazine
15 May 2017

The skills gap is a dominating issue within the construction industry and beyond. What could the introduction of T-levels aimed to drive technical training mean for the next generation of the workforce? Natalie Daniels finds out. 

Construction projects are found everywhere across the UK, and with more building projects expected over the coming years, construction companies are finding it increasingly hard to find bricklayers and other skilled workers to fulfil demand. The skills gap has been consistently highlighted as an area that needs investment, people and training, but what does the UK need to do to meet these expectations?

A study by the UK construction consultancy, Arcadis, in February 2017, revealed that the UK construction industry must hire more than 400,000 workers annually for the next five years to build enough homes to meet demand, equal to recruiting one new construction worker every 77 seconds until 2021. The study found that if the UK were to increase output to 270,000 new homes over the next five years, it would require in excess of 370,000 new workers. Bricklayers are one of the construction resources required for the UK to fulfil its proposed targets. James Bryce, Director of Workforce Planning at Arcadis, commented, ‘What we have is not a skills gap – it is a skills gulf. Systemic under-investment in the nation’s workforce has contributed to a reduction in UK productivity.’ 

The biggest gap, however, lies in education and training, where there is a lack of young people coming through the system. Lessons need to be learnt from other countries and government needs to take notice if things are to change, as James Bragg, Head of Construction at Hackney College, UK, told Clay Technology, ‘The Government’s lack of investment over the years is a major factor to the current crisis. When government ignores a skills crisis, the older industry experts are resigned to relying on existing methods of employment – hire and fire. Both industry and government need to start the training very young, as in the USA and Germany, and technical qualifications must be treated as equal.’

Dead end courses 

The most common training for bricklaying is through NVQ courses, which can take between two-to-three years to complete and require on-site experience. Classroom-based construction courses have recently come under criticism following a freedom of information request by Unite, UK, the largest union for construction workers, which uncovered that thousands of young people are being placed on what they believe are ‘dead-end’ classroom-based construction courses, because without access to on-site training, trainees are only usually able to achieve a technical qualification. The figures by the Government’s Skills Funding Agency showed that a total of 192,500 people began a classroom-based construction course in 2015–16, compared with 167,000 in 2014–15, a 14% increase. However, during the same 12 months just 21,460 people began a construction apprenticeship. With the only qualification recognised in construction the NVQ, being unachievable without substantial site experience, Unite stated that 89% of people beginning a construction course are undertaking potentially unsuccessful training.  

Gail Cartmail, Acting General Secretary at Unite, said, ‘The record of small and medium sized businesses in training apprentices is far superior to that of the major contractors. If we are going to begin bridging the skills gap then the major players must undertake far more of the heavy lifting.’ In the past the Government has placed greater emphasis on academic education, making it difficult for the construction industry to attract new talent. But new attempts to close the skills gap by government could make construction courses more advantageous by backing vocational training as a step towards tackling the UK’s poor productivity figures. 

Education and qualifications

To address the skills gap, in March 2017, the UK Government unveiled T-level qualifications, which it hopes will be viewed in the same regard as A-levels. These aim to simplify routes into technical roles including construction and engineering. According to the Government, these 15 T-levels will be ‘clear, career-focused routes’ and will replace the current 15,000 different qualifications. These new routes are currently being developed for 16–19 year olds with the pathfinder courses scheduled for teaching in September 2019, ahead of full integration into the education system by September 2022. ‘Hopefully the new T-levels will go a long way in trying to fix this problem and persuade people that a career in the construction industry is just as good as being a lawyer, doctor or teacher. Let’s hope it works,’ said Bragg.  

Not only will these qualifications provide education and learning but also on-site training and interchangeable skills needed for the brick industry, which Bragg believes are transferable to other industries. ‘Skills in this industry include hand-eye coordination, levelling, estimating, geometry, mathematical problem solving and essential communication skills.’ 

It isn’t just the apprentice who can benefit from training but businesses, too. Companies hiring apprentices have higher retention rates of staff and are often favoured by consumers and contractors over those that don’t. One way companies are trying to support the ageing workforce with the younger generation is by incorporating reverse mentoring into the business. Technology has changed traditional construction methods, and now the younger workers can offer their knowledge to teach the mature and experienced workforce.

Blended learning

With pressure mounting on companies to recruit new apprentices and employers, Mary Sisson, Leadership and Management Programme Developer at Awbury Management Centre, UK, told Clay Technology, ‘The current skills gap within industry is a key reason to consider developing a coaching and mentoring culture, which could help to address the gap by passing on skills and experience and developing and sharing knowledge.’ 

Companies can now find up to four generations at a time working alongside each other, creating a unique challenge that often requires adaptable leadership, as Sission explains, ‘We can’t get away from the fact that workforces are changing. Reverse mentoring, where the millennials develop digital skills upwards to Generation X and Y, is becoming recognised as a benefit to build teams and strengthen communications within the workforce.’

In a bid to introduce reverse mentoring into the workforce, UK-based infrastructure and construction service provider, Amey, launched a programme in October 2016 to encourage interaction between different job roles within the company. The reverse mentoring scheme aims to help leading figures in the industry to explore more in-depth challenges faced by those in an entry role, while the mentor has the opportunity to have their thoughts and ideas listened to by someone in a senior position – encouraging interaction, new learning and technology.

This method of training is aimed at engaging both the younger and older workforce to encourage career development and staff retention – something that the industry desperately needs to fulfil demand. It is encouraging to see government, industry and education joining forces, but only time will tell whether it can help bridge the skills gap.