Skills shortage threatens housebuilding targets

on 26 January, 2016

In last year's Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne declared: “We choose to build the homes that people can buy,” and so at the start of 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the government would directly commission thousands of new affordable homes on publicly owned land.

With No.10 describing the policy as 'ground-breaking', the plan involves building 30,000 affordable 'starter homes' on underused brownfield land by 2020, with a particular focus on using small housebuilders. While many in the industry have welcomed the government’s recent wave of housebuilding announcements, reports of a skills shortage across the construction and housebuilding sector have raised some concerns about whether these plans can actually be met?

Over the past few months, BMN has covered a number of stories about the need for a new generation of skilled workers to make the government’s vision for housing a reality. Recent news to hit my inbox highlights that as a result of labour shortages in the construction sector, wages are now being driven up and vital infrastructure work is being held back.

According to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ (RICS) latest UK Construction Market Survey, construction wages rose by 6% in 2015, well ahead of the 2% UK average, because there aren't enough pairs of hands to deliver more housing.

"The construction skills crisis is slowing growth in a sector that is vital to UK plc," said Sally Speed, skills and talent director at RICS. "Unless government looks to address the problem urgently, some of its key housing and infrastructure programmes could soon face crippling delays and spiralling costs.”

Meanwhile, Simon Rubinsohn, chief economist at RICS, hopes the higher wages "will encourage skilled workers to return to the sector, as well as drawing school leavers and graduates towards construction industry careers”.

One of the main contributors to this skills shortage is a lack of young people entering the industry. We all know how positive a career in the construction sector can be and how the industry can offer real job satisfaction to those who enter it.

To tackle the root of the problem, it's vital that we inform young people about the exciting opportunities the building industry has to offer, and help them overcome any mistaken stereotypes they may have of what it means to work in the sector.

The Builders Merchants Federation (BMF) works hard to promote and support the employment opportunities offered by merchants and suppliers, and set up the Builders Merchants Careers website – www.merchant-recruitment.co.uk – last year. The initiative is aimed at making young people more aware of the diversity of roles available in the merchanting sector, together with the industry’s vocational training programmes, opportunities for progression and earnings potential.

More recently, an expert panel of business leaders has been formed to help the government champion apprenticeships in all sectors of the economy, including construction. The Apprenticeship Delivery Board will highlight how businesses can benefit from taking on apprentices.

Headed by apprenticeship adviser Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon, with support from David Meller, chairman of the Apprenticeship Ambassador Network, representatives of some of the UK’s biggest businesses feature on the panel, including James Wates CBE, chairman of Wates Construction and chairman of the Construction Industry Training Board.

Panel members will work closely with employers to raise the number of available apprenticeships, as well as ensuring the training is of the highest quality. They will also examine ways of increasing the number of trainees looking to learn vital skills on the job.

Apprenticeships provide people with an opportunity to earn a wage and gain a valuable qualification and skill that they will have for life. Attracting more young people to the industry is also beneficial for employers as they not only gain loyal and skilled staff, but also add genuine value to their business.

A career in the construction industry is a meaningful and rewarding choice in a life-long and fulfilling profession.

Nichola Farrugia is editor of Builders' Merchants News.

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