Mind the Gap: Addressing Age, Skills & Image Discrepancies in Construction | Jan Tore GrindheimDec 14, 2021
Despite a prolonged economic downturn marked by redundancies, instability and the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK construction industry has been one of the main engines of growth in recent years. Globally, the construction market is expected to grow by approximately 70% by 2025.1 However, not unlike the situation in other nations, the UK construction workforce is steadily aging, and the industry is failing to successfully promote careers in the trades that attract qualified professionals with both technical and trade skills. The construction industry has historically been slow to adopt technology, and several underlying factors are contributing to the gaps in age and skills, beginning with lack of development and appealing career paths.
Construction work can be perceived as rigid – “This is the way we’ve always done it” and “It’s worked this way for the last 120 years,” are heard far too often on projects. Young workers are looking for change and ways to innovate and improve. They want advancement and excitement in their chosen field of work. Just as a young person who has begun a career in tech wants to see a clear path to advancement and promotion, why shouldn’t a Level 4 Advanced Apprentice want to see a clear path to becoming a project manager, project coordinator, project executive or project support officer? They need to see the benefits of pursuing a career in a skilled trade such as construction, reasons to stay in the field, and ways they can bring innovation and positive change. By showing young people the benefits of working in construction and modernising construction techniques through technology, there will be an increase in the appeal for young people who are evaluating longer-lasting roles when choosing a career path.
Another, and perhaps more obvious, issue is the shortage of skills. The gap in skills often results in additional costs, delays in production, and sometimes even lost business. The UK construction workforce is an aging one, with over 20% of tradespeople being over 50 and 15% being in their 60s. The trouble is, as these plasterers, painters, brickies and plumbers retire, the same percentage of young people are not entering these professions. The construction industry covers careers in architectural design, engineering and project management along with on-site trades. All of these roles require specialist skills – whether it’s the designing of a building or the physical making of it. Although there are endless opportunities in various trades, only 3% of young people aged between 18-24 have searched for a job in the construction industry.2 But why?
Whilst construction is one of the fastest growing industries, studies suggest it’s one of the least digitised. Many construction businesses struggle to invest or implement new technology. Hence, it’s no surprise that a global report from McKinsey Global Institute recognised construction as the second least digitised sector in the world. (The least digitised being noted as agriculture and hunting).3 The lagging use of technology puts many companies at a disadvantage when it comes to executing their projects in a cost and time-efficient manner. The younger generation of workers needed to fill this gap were practically born with a mobile device in hand. They’ve grown up with technology, and the industry needs their technical prowess. They don’t know a world without lightning-fast broadband, smart devices, and instant access to information. Subsequently, if the young people needed to fill the gap don’t see or experience familiar apps and other technological advancements being used by trade workers, it stands to reason they won’t be interested or even relate to a career as an electrician or plumber, for example. The government is already recognising this with a number of initiatives launched last year aiming to help the sector adopt newer technologies and increase productivity levels.
And finally, let us not ignore the image of construction work. For many years now, young people leaving school have been encouraged to “better themselves” and go to university. Construction has a reputation for being dangerous and dirty work as well as an industry of middle-aged white men. The skills shortage in construction may be – in part – a demographic one, with women and ethnic groups feeling construction is not the place for them, and an industry that does not embrace diversity. With Brexit also influencing the available number of workers, construction may also be perceived as an unskilled field of employment by British nationals.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. In an increasingly digitised world, we have the capacity and availability to introduce workers – both young and aging – to new digital tools and technologies. Collaboration between educators and construction companies who are already using these technologies and willing to provide apprenticeships, is instrumental in closing the gap. Utilising software solutions and apps that are web-based and easy to use can help both fresh graduates and long-term workers come to grips with game-changing technology. Products such as construction management software can enhance projects from start to finish, ensure better accuracy of the construction project, use materials more efficiently and help create safer working environments. It also allows young people to feel more at ease in an environment that recognises and respects the digital skills they bring and share whilst teaching them a trade.
Widening and diversifying the talent pool for recruitment and acceptance into the industry is another way to stop limiting the number of people entering the industry. Pushing back against the perceived idea that construction is a “boy’s club” and challenging gender inequality in construction will make the industry more appealing to women, vastly increasing the number of people interested in a career in construction.4
As an industry, we must be willing to examine our hesitation to adopt resources that have launched the rest of our world forward. Embracing digital technology will help transform construction by ensuring the planning, building and maintenance of our infrastructure is done in a more profitable, collaborative and sustainable way. If a side effect of this adoption also helps us fill a major gap in skilled labor, we would be foolish not to take an objective look at what’s available in construction technology.
1 HM Government: Construction 2025, Industrial Strategy: government and industry in partnership, July 2013