The Built Environment Skills Gap

Author: Spencer Ogden
Date posted05/May/2016
Author: Spencer Ogden

Built environment is a sector that continues to attract more headlines. Like most technical disciplines, built environment is fighting for its share of the talent pool across the globe. Today, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill skilled roles due to a lack of available talent, across all construction platforms. It is a crisis that is putting additional strain on the industry’s supply chain and causing many disruptions to building firms, which is further increasing costs and causing project delays. The skills gap has become so large that it is now impossible for it to be immediately resolved by one party or sector alone as it will require a collaborative effort.



Finding concrete solutions

Many officials believe the sector is still recovering from the recession which occurred in 2008. According to David Picton, chief sustainability officer at Carillion, one of the UK’s biggest construction and facilities management groups, there are several reasons why the recession has had an enormous effect on the industry.  “In a recession, construction is always the last industry to slow down and the last to pick up,” says Mr Picton. “Workers left the industry and, at the same time, young people were not inspired to join to replace them.” Overtime many workers chose other professions due to the lack of perceivable career prospects across the field. Apprenticeships have always been an effective means of attracting fresh employees and provide many cost reducing benefits for employers, however, this is not the only strategy that can solve the current skills shortage crisis. Part of the solution relies on how the sector is promoted to the market and whether it is painted as an industry that is bright and full of opportunities.

The same skills gap is having a substantial impact on the economic growth of many powerful countries, and has become particularly acute in China. China may have the world’s largest workforce but this hasn’t stopped Chinese companies reporting on major discrepancies between the requirements of available roles, candidate qualifications and skills. Other Asian nations such as Hong Kong are facing the same issue. Hong Kong’s property market is one that is booming and continues to play a key role in the region’s economic expansion. Major infrastructure projects are driving financial growth, however, the country’s lack of talent is slowing down the nation’s fiscal potential.
Will Carter, built environment manager at Spencer Ogden’s Singapore office acknowledges the negative consequences of the sectors’ alignment with oil and gas. “The tightening of the Asian real estate market was initially influenced by China's slowdown and the decline of oil and gas companies turning to public infrastructure and institutional projects.” Asian Governments have now started to recognise the need for additional financial support to aid the delivery of projects entering the pipeline. “In Singapore, the government is looking to spend a further $5 billion (SGD) in 2016. The Land Transport Authority continues to expand its MRT network with the construction & launch of Downtown line 3, Thomson East Coast Line and completion of the Circle line which will see an increase in requirements for Civil, Structural & Rail related talent.” Carter knows the future of construction can only get better, as he explains: “The next 10 years is set to be an exciting time for Regional Infrastructure which will inevitably lead to a rise in private sector spending.”

In the UK, the creation of the built environment skills gap was unavoidable. “The UK construction sector has taken a dip in Q1, largely due to the uncertainty surrounding the EU referendum, planning delays and public spending cuts,” says Zoe Lane, head of built environment at Spencer Ogden’s London office. Despite this noticeable hesitancy, work in built environment has continued to mount. It is a field that is constantly evolving and expanding – and fast. “Demand still remains strong particularly within the private sector housing and infrastructure markets with the governments promise to support new infrastructure and building programmes and its pledge to deliver 200,000 new homes by 2020,” says Lane. Over the past couple of years, the structural engineering industry has been key to the UK’s economic recovery and has contributed close to £92 billion a year to economic output, and is set to increase 17.8% by 2018. In order to meet the rising demand of talented staff, it is estimated that more than 600,000 constructions professionals will be required in London and the South East for construction projects by 2017.
The challenge for business leaders now is how they will they find the correct talent to weather through the storm. Some believe the answer lies in the ability to cast a wider net. One solution that is supported by Carillion is a campaign called Ban the Box which seeks to remove the criminal conviction tick from job application forms. “Banning the box enables ex-offenders to compete fairly for jobs based on an assessment of their skills first, alongside regulated disclosure and barring service checks. Participating employers are able to find people from a wider pool of talent, while also contributing to reducing the estimated £11-billion annual cost of reoffending,” the company says. While this may be met with some reluctance within the industry, it must be known that the campaign also emphasises the importance of gaining access to ex-service personnel and reservists.



The digital construction evolution

There is now a cutting edge skill that is favoured among many managers hiring across the sector. We are all witnessing the rise of digital construction and other modern methods of manufacturing, and it is because of this shift that construction is gaining popularity and closing the skills gap. Infrastructure in particular is now an industry that is not only measured on aesthetics and financials, but also on the industry’s ability to adapt to new technologies. Innovation through the use of design, equipment, materials and energy resources is increasing the demand for a dynamic workforce. “We’re moving into a technological era where skills like digital construction are becoming key,” says Ms Thornhill, human resources director for the UK, Middle East and Africa at engineering consultant Arup. “Things like eco-cities require a more holistic set of skills and people who can take a broader view.” 

According to Oliver Hughes, the event director of Digital Construction Week, “the AECO (Architecture, Engineering, Construction and Owner-Operated) industry is going through a huge period of change. From the way we design buildings all the way through to how we operate them, digital technologies and processes are playing a huge part in that. For me, there’s a real image of construction being this industry of hard hats and muddy building sites, but there’s so much more to it than that.” UK construction projects such as Crossrail and HS2 have started to demonstrate new technology that is supporting construction operations. For example, the installation of sensors which monitor the project are able to provide real time data which assist with minimising risk, lowering production costs and enhancing overall project delivery. In the 21st Century, it is employees with a technological background who are helping built environment companies design and build better buildings which are more innovative and adaptive.



Attraction and retention

One emerging challenge of built environment is the lack of attractive career prospects. “To be a sustainable industry, we need to be a lot more attractive and show people there is a career path at every level,” says Graham Edgell, director of sustainability and procurement at Morgan Sindall Group. “As an industry, we are world leaders, but to maintain that position we need business to pick up and we need to understand the way the education system worked in the past is no longer there.” Enticing talented professionals with bonuses has become the standard for many employers. Luring in candidates with financial incentives and higher salaries certainly improve the recruitment process but interaction with the correct potential talent pools is crucial.

In a recent survey, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) revealed construction wages rose by six per cent in 2015 due to the skills shortage. In a statement, Simon Rubinsohn, RICS chief economist, explains, “Industry wages are becoming increasingly attractive, and I would hope that over time this will encourage skilled workers to return to the sector, as well as drawing school leavers and graduates towards construction industry careers.” Training also holds an important piece of the puzzle. Introducing flexible working hours and investing in bespoke training schemes will enable built environment employees to feel empowered in their respective roles. It is an achievable solution which can increase employee morale and career satisfaction.

It has recently been confirmed that 19% of the construction workforce will retire in the next five to ten years. With many older workers retiring there are few left to train new recruits, which places more pressure on acquiring a workforce that is well-trained and will work in the sector long term. Providing additional benefits to older workers to train up younger recruits is one strategy that is still readily available.



Encouraging a diverse workforce

Gender diversity across the field is noticeably poor and numerous business leaders acknowledge that there is an evident under-representation of women in the sector. Recent reports expose that men outnumber women by 25 to one on engineering apprenticeships and 56 to one on construction apprenticeships. Women are positioned as minorities across the field and recruiters are now encouraging their participation. Holly Porter, founder of the networking group for female construction workers, Chicks With Bricks, says “the industry has been pretty stagnant in terms of ratios of women to men for quite a long time. There are certain areas where things are a lot better, like the design industry. But if you look at manual careers the proportion of women is absolutely minimal.” A contributing factor that is lessening female attraction is that built environment is often viewed as a male-only career. “Women make up half our population and so it is right that we see them able to fulfil their potential and thrive in careers across our economy, including construction,” says UK Conservative Minister, Nicky Morgan. “We clearly still have a long way to go. Stereotypes still persist. For many, a job in construction too often still conjures up an image of a man in a hi-vis jacket on a building site, wearing his trousers slightly lower than he should.“ With every challenge there is an opportunity in built environment. Females who work within the industry often find opportunity, and placed in an ideal position to become industry role models. However, females need to be exposed to the industry more often for such positive change to come into effect.


Building a prosperous future

Built environment is a field that is striving to acquire world-class expertise in architecture, design and engineering a sector.  There are considerable growth opportunities across the global construction market as it has been forecasted to grow by over 70% by 2025. Attracting a more diverse workforce and encouraging wider expertise from outside the industry will remain key for built environment’s future growth.  Harnessing the power of technology will continue to strengthen the industry and push the boundaries of design and operations. However, creating a future-proof solution to secure a firm talent pipeline is not going to be easy. What built environment needs is industry bodies working with education, government and businesses to find a sustainable solution. Companies can’t just sit back and wait for perfect workers to appear out of thin air. If the industry continues to promote an image that is one of hard hats and steel capped boots, then the capabilities of attracting a diverse workforce can only go so far. 

Click here to view roles that are currently available across the Built Environment sector.