The construction sector has undoubtedly been shaken over the last month following the Brexit vote, as a new wave of uncertainty washes over the industry. Developers are re-assessing plans, infrastructure projects are being placed under review and businesses are implementing their post-Brexit strategies as we transition into this new phase of economic and political uncertainty. Those businesses that retained their organisational agility will be well placed to prosper by improving market share against those who are more exposed. Regardless of the uncertain landscape that will emerge and the challenges it will bring, it is evident that the existing skill shortage will not go away, and may be exaggerated if restrictions on the freedom of movement are implemented.
The recent RICS UK Survey stated that over 50% of businesses in the industry are being held back by the shortage of surveyors, which is a staggering and worrying figure reflecting a fundamental problem within the sector. Despite the scaled back projections, the construction sector is still expecting growth of 1% over the year. The recent post-Brexit report from Glenigans suggests that growth in public sector construction such as education and healthcare could reach double figures with infrastructure growth rising as much as 29% in 2017. All the data suggests the demand for surveyors will still exist over the next few years and with the construction sector crucial to economic growth in the long term, the surveying route is an excellent option for any career-minded person.
For the middle-senior leadership division, the limited movement of new talent into the industry over the past decade, combined with the outflow of skilled leaders lost throughout the recession, has created a cauldron of competition that has seen demand far outstrip supply. In order to ensure this does not continue indefinitely, long term solutions must be found to rebalance the supply and demand of future leaders in the sector.
As there is a high demand for surveyors and a clear career path that should be attractive, it raises the questions: why does a skill gap exist; and how can we close the skills gap?
So why does the skill gap exist? Without stating the obvious that demand has out-grown supply, the reason to me seems to be two-fold: we have lost a significant portion of the workforce through the challenges brought about by the cyclical nature of the industry; and we have not done enough to attract school leavers and graduates into the industry. Both of these points are critically important to address if we are to ensure the sustainable flow of skills into the sector for years to come.
Traditionally, the qualification route to become a surveyor has consisted of a three year degree in surveying and/or an extensive apprenticeship. Whilst this system ensures high rigor and quality to the profession, there are significant talent pools that are not exploited which could be instrumental in closing the gap. So what can we do?
Firstly, there are limited provisions in place to capture individuals with transferrable degrees such as law, finance and business. Many of these graduates will have learned the basic skills needed to succeed within the profession, but without the vocational knowledge or experience. Whilst some organisations are improving their internal capabilities to provide training programmes to these individuals - for example Wates offer a graduate programme for “any degree discipline”- more can still be done. A greater marketing effort by the industry to make graduates more aware of the career prospects within the industry could also inspire less traditional applications.
Secondly, raising the awareness, brand image and the appreciation for the diversity of roles within construction available across schools is vital. There has been incredible innovation when approaching this within engineering sectors including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and computing, however construction continues to lag behind. More should be done to connect with these individuals to provide a core of new innovation across the industry that will sow the seeds for long term benefits and provide a more competitive front on talent.
In addition to attracting new talent, Skanska have implemented an initiative to re-attract those individuals that were lost from the sector during the last recession. This is exactly the type of thinking that the industry needs if it is to be freed from the labour constraints that it has experienced for so long. I am sure Skanska is not alone in their thinking, and industry wide initiatives of this nature would benefit the sector greatly. As the competition for senior talent continues to heat up, organisations that work with their recruitment partners effectively to provide creative, rigorous and in-depth search processes will be best placed to take advantage of the current uncertainty in the market. It is important that organisations are able to move swiftly and effectively with mid-senior hiring by using a search process that is well planned and executed with a controlled message to a well-researched target population.
There is brilliant work going on across the sector and at no point should this be ignored. However this only goes so far. The newly formed Government needs to offer some relief to these businesses to encourage this to continue by releasing them of the apprentice levy and committing to some of the huge pipeline of infrastructure projects. Hopefully this can act as a catalyst to greater co-ordination between the industry and Whitehall. What is important though, is that the good work that is being carried out is built upon and the industry formulates a collaborative approach to capturing and developing talent outside of the usual channels to ensure the long term sustainability of the sector.
George Dobbins is an Associate Consultant in the Infrastructure Practice