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Government industrial strategy light on construction skills

The deadline for responses to the UK Government’s industrial strategy green paper (published on 23 January 2017) passed last week, and it’s been interesting to monitor some of the responses that are now being published (here is what the Open Data Institute had to say, for example).

Little mention of construction

But before we look quickly at two of the responses, what did the green paper set out to do for construction? Well, it mentioned construction just seven times (excluding notes and photo acknowledgements) in 138 pages. And the pressing challenge of construction skills shortages is only fleetingly addressed on page 53:

“There have also been problems with the delivery of schemes. Projects have been delayed by years and provided at excessive cost. There has been improvement in recent years, but the local planning and consent system still remains a contributing factor in some instances. There has also been fragmentation in the construction sector and its supply chain, with businesses often unable to deliver long term investment at large scale. This is combined with shortages in key construction skills.”

However, it does highlight some “acute and urgent skills shortages in key industrial sectors including infrastructure and the nuclear industry”, noting that in some sectors (road and rail, for example) action is already being taken through the creation of sector-specific national colleges. But it highlights:

“… previous efforts by the Government and industry to forecast skills shortages have lacked the accuracy to enable timely and effective action, and that further action could be taken to ensure that we can better identify and address future shortages.” (p.45)

Clearly, we feel these are areas where SkillsPlanner could help, particularly if central and local government, plus industry and training organisations, collaborated better.

Developing skills

The subject of ‘skills,’ on the other hand, is a central theme in the consultation paper. The document discusses ten pillars to its strategy, of which the second is Developing skills:

Developing skills – we must help people and businesses to thrive by: ensuring everyone has the basic skills needed in a modern economy; building a new system of technical education to benefit the half of young people who do not go to university; boosting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills, digital skills and numeracy; and by raising skill levels in lagging areas.” (p.11)

On these ‘lagging areas’, it points out that we have a shortage of technical-level skills, that we rank 16th out of 20 OECD countries for the proportion of people with technical qualifications, and that we have particular skills shortages in sectors that depend on STEM subjects (p.16). Alarmingly, when, within the next two decades, 90 per cent of jobs will require some digital proficiency, 23 per cent of adults lack basic digital skills.

It also suggests that industry has to help shape qualifications and the curriculum – for technical qualifications in particular – to ensure they are useful to future employers (p.37). Much of the skills strategy reflects thinking already shared in the July 2016 Skills plan (post).

AoC and ICE responses

One of our partners on the SkillsPlanner project is the Association of Colleges (AoC), and its response (delivered jointly with the Open University) to the consultation paper strongly welcomes the focus on developing skills. It calls for:

“a coherent national skills strategy, designed with flexibility to meet individual’s needs and circumstances and those of employers; one that pulls together and builds on the best of what is already out there through collaboration and partnership.”

Given the importance placed on infrastructure in the consultation paper, the Institution of Civil Engineers’ response is particularly pertinent, and in the first of its three key recommendations, puts “demand scenarios” and “foresight on skills needs” right at the heart of future planning:

Regional infrastructure pipelines should be developed to address skills gaps
Realising growth through infrastructure requires improved skills provision. To give a fuller picture of demand scenarios, regional infrastructure pipelines identifying upcoming projects and providing foresight on skills needs, should be put in place.

Construction “on a knife-edge”

The latest Construction Skills Network report from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) suggests the health of the construction industry over the next five years is on a knife-edge, heavily dependent of a few politically sensitive infrastructure projects of huge scope, according to new industry forecasts.

Industry fortunes depend on smooth progress for big projects like the £18bn Hinkley Point C and £14bn Wylfa Newydd nuclear power stations, and the £55bn HS2 rail project.

The 2017-2021 Construction Skills Network (CSN) report predicts growth of 1.7% over the next five years, with 179,000 jobs to be created, reports The Construction Index this week.

Arcadis Brexit imageA year ago (read our blog post), before the EU referendum, CSN was forecasting 2.5% average annual growth and 232,000 new jobs needed. After the referendum, CSN downgraded its growth forecast to 2% a year and industry-wide recruitment need to 157,000 (we noted the potential Brexit impact in June 2016, and highlighted the Brexit views of Arcadis in November 2016 too).

The new CSN forecast suggests the fortunes of the post-Brexit construction industry are heavily dependent on the big politically sensitive infrastructure projects starting main works on time as infrastructure represents 45% of all predicted construction growth over the next five years.

Brexit impact

With the UK withdrawing from the EU, job growth in the UK construction industry will be slower than indicated in last year’s report, but construction overall still needs 35,000 new workers every year.

As these projects are particularly politically sensitive, the report makes clear that the forecasts are heavily qualified, making it unclear what weight should be put upon them. “All predictions for the construction sector are made against a backdrop of ongoing political and economic uncertainty. The impact on the construction pipeline of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is one of the most significant unknowns,” the report says.

Infrastructure key

It adds:

“As wider economic turbulence can affect many parts of construction, the commitment to infrastructure is helpful to the forecast. But, with output growth so reliant on these major projects, any shifting of the goalposts on, for example HS2 or nuclear new build could be felt throughout the industry. If, for example, Hinkley was taken out of the pipeline, total construction output for 2021 would be 0.8% lower than currently predicted. And the reliance on large infrastructure projects means that forecasts, particularly those made over the longer term, are less balanced than in the past.

“However, the changing of the guard at the top of government in the UK has, so far, not affected its commitment to the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan. The government is still pledged to invest over £100 billion in infrastructure by 2021.”

It continues:

“Profitability remains a concern, with the volatility of material and labour costs squeezing margins. The situation is not helped by deteriorating levels of productivity, and there is also the prospect of a potential gap in the labour market resulting from any changes to immigration policy.”

The CSN report shows there will be job opportunities in particular for carpenters (+3,850 per year), electricians and insulators (+2,250), process managers (+2,150) and a range of IT and other technical workers (+5,240).

CITB director of policy Steve Radley said:

“We expect construction to keep defying the economic headwinds, with almost half of its growth coming from Hinkley, HS2 and Wylfa and other infrastructure projects.  These huge projects give our industry a great chance to seize the initiative on skills and start investing in the next generation and upskilling the current one. So it’s vital that we don’t throw this opportunity away by allowing these projects to slip or get squeezed together and worsen the pressure on key skills.”

CITB interim chief executive Sarah Beale said:

“While we are forecasting slower growth for our industry than we were last year, employers will still be creating tens of thousands of new jobs. We will be working with employers to attract new talent into our industry and to train them for rewarding careers in the sector.

“While we have factored Brexit into this forecast, there remain many unknowns to life after leaving the EU. We will be working with our industry to understand what it means for our migrant workforce and what we must do to attract and grow more of our own.”

Housing white paper: little new on skills

Fixing our broken housing market

The Government’s new Housing White Paper, Fixing our Broken Housing Market, mentions skills 20 times (most of the mentions are on page 41) in a largely underwhelming document over 100 pages long. However, it doesn’t say anything particularly new or radical about skills – though this is perhaps to be expected from a Conservative Government writing about an inherently conservative industry (and house-building is, arguably, the most conservative sector within construction).

It makes a passing mention of Mark Farmer’s review, Modernise or Die, published in October 2016 (read our post), touching on his advocacy of offsite fabrication (read this Construction Index summary, for example), and acknowledges that the industry faces particular challenges in certain regions, such as London and the South East, as Brexit looms. It continues:

“This is an important moment and we should make the most of the opportunity for industry to invest in its workforce, alongside tackling the issues raised by the Farmer Review. The larger companies need to take responsibility for ensuring that they have a sustainable supply chain, working with contractors to address skills requirements.”

Three areas are singled out for Government action. It says it will:

  • Post-16 Skills Plan“change the way the Government supports training in the construction industry” – This will include the conclusion of an ongoing review, chaired by Paul Morrell, of the Construction Industry Training Board’s purpose, functions and operations, with the government looking to “ensure that developers benefitting from public funding use the projects to train the workforce of the future.”
  • “launch a new route into construction in September 2019” – as announced in the Skills Plan produced in July 2016 (blog post), it says it will “streamline the number of courses available and improve quality and employability”
  • work across Government, with the Construction Leadership Council, to challenge house builders and other construction companies to deliver their part of the bargain.”

The white paper then highlights what can be achieved from investing in training as part of major construction programmes such as Crossrail, to see whether this approach can be applied more broadly in the construction sector, particularly by holding developers and local authorities to account. This is mainly about improving transparency of the end-to-end house building process, and identifying where blockages lie (encouragingly there are three mentions of “transparent data”). This could be an areas where SkillsPlanner’s modelling of supply and demand of construction skills could play a crucial role, as Mark Farmer pointed out last year.

farmer review cover“The increasing importance of data means that such approaches would better enable the business case for investment in training and new ways of delivering by better aligning investment to a demand pipeline. … The culture of ‘data silos’ within the industry needs to be broken as part of the wider societal democratisation of data.”


New SkillsPlanner Intelligence Briefing

SERIO 3rd briefing

Keeping SkillsPlanner stakeholders updated on key developments, Plymouth University’s SERIO applied research unit is producing a series of intelligence briefings covering construction skills in industry and government. SERIO’s third briefing (PDF – will open in new tab) is now available in our media section, along with the first (published in February 2016 – post) and second (July 2016 – post).

Written in clear, non-academic English, these briefings are intended to inform and engage our audiences with our ongoing R&D project. The latest looks at four topics:

Apprenticeship Levy: In August 2016 the government released further details concerning the specifics of the Apprenticeship Levy. This includes a 90% apprenticeship training co-investment from government for non-levy paying businesses; and the introduction of 15 funding bands that will cap the maximum price government will co-invest towards the cost of each apprenticeship.

Further Education Provision: The findings from a panel chaired by Lord Sainsbury into the ‘over-complex’ technical and professional qualification environment have been released, alongside a series of recommendations which have been accepted by the government. The Post-16 skills plan sets out a streamlined technical education system where students will be able to choose from up to 15 distinct technical education routes, with the first routes being made available from 2019. In addition, the QAA have announced that they are developing a new characteristics statement for Degree Apprenticeships. Currently there are 13 Degree Apprenticeships on offer and this move will ensure that they are formally recognised within the higher education system.

Farmer Review: This month, a report on the state of the skills crisis within the construction sector has been published, detailing 10 critical areas where the construction industry is showing signs of failure. The review notes how an ageing workforce and surging costs driven by a shortage of skilled workers have stalled investment. Among the recommendations set out in the report, several refer to the need for skills and training to better reflect the needs of a future modernised industry, including the use of OpenData to address the construction skills gap, specifically mentioning SkillsPlanner (read our blog post).

Neighbourhood Planning Bill: A series of new amendments have been made to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill which are now due to be considered by a Public Bill Committee. The Bill seeks to simplify how plans can be revised as local circumstances change and measures will support more housebuilding and provide more local say over developments.

What ‘a hard Brexit’ means for skills

Arcadis Brexit image

Industry debate about the impacts of Brexit continues to rage (we blogged about it back in June), and analysis by consultancy Arcadis (read news release; it’s also been reported on Construction Enquirer) suggests that a ‘hard’ Brexit could lead to a reduction of 215,000 people in the UK construction industry – equivalent to around 14% of the workforce.

Arcadis says that a potential ‘hard’ Brexit scenario – such as extending the points-based system currently in place for non-EU migrants – could see EU construction workers leaving the industry at a quicker rate than they can be replaced. If this plays out, Arcadis estimates that almost 215,000 fewer people from the EU would enter the infrastructure and house building sectors between now and 2020.

Even with a ‘soft’ Brexit, the construction workforce could again reduce in numbers. Arcadis’s analysis of a quotas scenario and sector-specific policies allowing some EU migration into the sector still forecast that 136,000 fewer EU nationals would come to the UK to work in construction.

Arcadis director of workforce planning James Bryce said:

What started as a skills gap could soon become a skills gulf. The British construction sector has been built on overseas labour for generations, and restrictions of any sort – be it hard or soft Brexit – will hit the industry. Missing out on over 200,000 people entering the workforce could mean rising costs for business, and much needed homes and transport networks being delayed. In recent decades, there has been a massive push towards tertiary education which has seen a big drop in the number of British people with the specific skills we need. If we cannot import the right people, we will need to quickly ramp up training and change the way we build.

“Be it hard or soft Brexit, we need to take back control of the construction industry. The likes of robotics and off-site manufacturing have never been taken as seriously as they should, but they could well prove the difference. So, too, could training. Working with schools and colleges is one way of taking control but this takes time. In the short term retraining and turning to the unemployed and underemployed could be a significant benefit to an industry under significant pressure.”

Farmer Review highlights SkillsPlanner opportunity

farmer review cover

Mark Farmer’s review of the UK construction labour model for the UK’s Construction Leadership Council, starkly titled Modernise or Die (PDF available here), has been published today (read news release). It has been widely reported in both trade press and national newspapers, and somewhat cautiously welcomed by the CLC’s co-chair Andrew Wolstenholme.

We have been awaiting this report for some months, as previous blog posts attest (here and here, for example), and our patience has been rewarded. Farmer’s hard-hitting report prominently highlights the SkillsPlanner opportunity, with an entire page (p.34) devoted to a case study about the project.

Time for action

According to Farmer, Britain’s construction industry faces “inexorable decline” unless radical steps are taken to address its longstanding problems, which include its dysfunctional training model, its lack of innovation and collaboration as well as its non-existent research and development (R&D) culture. He also said the industry needs to be far more joined-up with its clients in how it approaches skills.

With more people leaving the industry each year than joining, the construction workforce is shrinking, placing increasingly severe constraints on its capacity to build housing and infrastructure. Reliance on a fractured supply chain and self-employment also means there is little incentive for contractors to invest in long term training for the labour force. Farmer says:

“… carrying on as we are is simply not an option. With digital technology advancements pushing ahead in almost every other industry and with the construction labour pool coming under serious pressure, the time has come for action.”

Break down the ‘data silos’

His review includes several case studies, each showing how to improve different dimensions of the industry’s performance. SkillsPlanner is particularly highlighted in a section titled “Lack of Collaboration & Improvement Culture”:

SkillsPlanner case study from Farmer Review“Lack of collaboration and joined up thinking also means the ability to use ‘open linked / big data’ principles to guide the industry on current and future skills requirements have not been maximised. The increasing importance of data means that such approaches would better enable the business case for investment in training and new ways of delivering by better aligning investment to a demand pipeline. … The culture of ‘data silos’ within the industry needs to be broken as part of the wider societal democratisation of data.”

(This was something touched upon in the government’s response to the Sainsbury review in its Post-16 Skills Plan in July 2016 – post.)

Encouragingly, the Farmer Review (p.31) also mentions two sister projects addressing the skills gap through brokerage: BuildForce, and the former Crossrail brokerage which has now been transferred to an Ethos-managed initiative called Build London.

Skills shortage hampers Smart Construction adoption

Shortages of skills in the housebuilding sector have been highlighted again, this time in a report from the UK Construction Leadership Council’s innovation stream which has attempted to set some strategic direction and a roadmap for the housebuilding sector to improve capacity, productivity and innovation. At its heart is the promotion of ‘Smart Construction‘, combining the Digital Built Britain strategy (read our July 2015 post) and Modern Methods of Construction.

In the document’s foreword, Mike Chaldecott (from Saint-Gobain UK and Ireland – the full report and a summary are both available from the Saint-Gobain website here) highlights the need for planning through collective thought and collaboration across the industry, and the report starts by listing (in order of priority) 11 key barriers to adoption of Smart Construction – most of them very familiar:

  • Lack of collaboration
  • Lack of demand
  • Investment in suppliers who can support Smart Construction
  • Lending, valuation & insurance
  • Immature supply chain
  • Risk-averse culture in construction
  • Procurement models
  • Business case for change
  • Requires economies of scale
  • Lack of performance data
  • Skills shortage

CLC logoThe report also underlines key issues within the construction value-chain relating to Smart Construction, including a lack of Smart Construction skills, and the growing use of automated construction processes. The CLC’s innovation workstream has set up a number of working groups to address some of the challenges to adoption of Smart Construction, but key work on skills and culture appears to be the responsibility of the CLC’s skills workstream. (As previously noted in this blog, in the CLC has commissioned Mark Farmer to undertake a review of the functioning of the labour market, including skills provision, in the construction sector – and we understand his report will be published in the next week or so).

In August (post) we noted the work of a National Housing Taskforce, convened by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Housing & Planning, which had a workstream focused on construction skills, materials and technology.


Parliament faces construction skills gap


The Houses of Parliament in London are falling down and in need of what will be a multi-billion restoration project. As a result, Members of Parliament, peers and civil servants are facing a skills gap literally on their crumbling doorstep.

Construction News reported last week (Specialist skills shortage poses ‘risk’ to £4bn Parliament restoration [£]) that Parliament’s Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster had warned that a lack of specialist skills across the sector could hamper the parliamentary restoration programme. In a report (Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster – available here), the committee devoted a section (“Managing the supply chain“) of Chapter 6 to detailed discussion of the need for specialist construction skills.

The committee received evidence from construction industry organisations including the RIBA, RICS and CIBSE, all of whom pointed out the need to start investing at the earliest possible opportunity in the skills that will be needed to deliver the Westminster restoration and renewal (R&R) programme. It also highlighted that most of these skills tend to be found the heritage and conservation sectors, where the vast majority of firms are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

  • The RIBA told the committee a “great skills shortage issue resulting from declining investment into the conservation sector and a large pipeline of works in the UK that would divert resources from the R&R Programme.” But even without this pipeline of expected works, there might still be insufficient skills available in the market to tackle the scale of the challenge entailed in the R&R Programme – even though it’s expected to start no sooner than 2023.
  • RICS suggested the R&R programme might become an “exemplar project” demonstrating how training and the sustainability of skills could be built into large programmes.
  • CIBSE also suggested that, rather than viewing the supply and capacity as a challenge, the R&R programme provided a unique opportunity to develop a new generation of skilled heritage workers, through apprenticeships and other career development activity, and also to bring a significant number of young women into the sector (diversity being an ongoing issue – post).

The committee was clearly under no illusion of the need to start engaging with supply chains, and also recognised that the project provided opportunities not only to engage with SMEs, but to spread the work well beyond London and the south-east of England (in much the same way that Crossrail has involved companies the length and breadth of the UK), and to develop a strategy for training and creating apprenticeships that would leave a legacy of skills and experience.

In short, the Westminster project, is, to use the RIBA’s words, “an ideal opportunity for educating and training the next generation in the skills needed to maintain, repair and enhance the historic buildings and to be an ongoing exemplar project for those skills and craftsmanship.” With SkillsPlanner’s focus on skills in London and the southeast, we will be watching for any mobilisation with respect to this project with interest.

Time to apply some military and manufacturing know-how?

Module Building in factory environment

The UK construction skills crisis continues to delay projects, drive up costs and reduce quality. As we have discussed several times on the SkillsPlanner blog, the government and industry have produced various reports and instituted various campaigns, but the skills gap challenge is deep-rooted.

With the Global Financial Crisis wreaking havoc in 2007-2009 and plunging national construction industries around the world into recession, the UK shed hundreds of thousands of workers, many of whom never returned to the industry. As the UK emerged, somewhat shakily, from recession, replacing these workers has not been helped by the industry’s poor reputation – itself a symptom of deep systemic problems (To change the image, first change construction), including a lack of diversity, an ageing workforce, and decades of under-investment in research and development so that construction is rock-bottom of the digitalisation league, notwithstanding the efforts to promote technologies such as BIM (Tackling skills gaps – can we learn from BIM?).

We have welcomed government plans to reform post-16 education (post) and we are looking closely at recently announced changes to the UK apprenticeship levy scheme (summarised by TES here; the CITB suggests the changes could cut apprenticeship funding by a third). But we still think construction needs to adopt a long-term view of its skills and employment needs, and to be thinking about digital skills and the fourth industrial revolution.

Military-style skills provision?

We are not alone in this view. Gary Sullivan, CEO of construction logistics and security business Wilson James has urged much the same kind of new thinking. In a hard-hitting open letter to the recently reshuffled skills minister Robert Halfon MP published in Construction Manager magazine, Sullivan writes:

Gary Sullivan“… we need more than builders. We need to manufacture off site, we need people with good hand-to-eye co-ordination, we need people who can use state-of-the-art tools who can produce quality at speed again and again. The precious few young people who want to join the industry are being given the wrong skills and it is taking too long to train them in the wrong skills.”

He continues:

“We need to train differently, get people in at ground level and get them working. We could look at how the military train young people. In less than 18 weeks they produce the highest skill levels with technical expertise and a great work ethic. We have to invest in off-site manufacturing and in parallel train the workforce to fit, erect and plug in the state-of-the-art products created in factories in our Northern Powerhouse. Our ambition should be more F1 than 1961.”

It is no surprise that Sullivan mentions the military. Before founding Wilson James 25 years ago, Sullivan spent seven years in the paratroopers, and then worked for the UN where he learned about logistics. Upon return to civilian life, he worked initially as a logistics and security manager for Bovis Lend Lease on projects in the City of London, noting how much construction could benefit from improved logistics. Today, Wilson James employs over 3000 people, has an annual turnover in excess of £100m, and has recruited extensively from armed forces leavers.

BuildForce square 720pxBuilding a strong transition pathway from the armed forces into construction is actively supported by SkillsPlanner project leaders at Ethos (many present at the Westminster launch of BuildForce at the Houses of Parliament on 29 June). As Sullivan suggests, military personnel can quickly gain technical skills and have a strong work ethic, while many in senior ranks have both professional and managerial skills and attitudes that equip them well for work not just in construction as we currently know it, but in what construction might become over the next decade or two.

Modern methods of construction

Such thinking is already being applied in other countries which face similar challenges to the UK. For example, according to a 2015 Ford Foundation report, more than 2.3 million advanced manufacturing jobs in the United States are unfilled and over the next decade an estimated 2.7 million baby boomers will retire from this sector. In California, Workshops for Warriors is training veterans in advanced manufacturing – “Today we train veterans to make products, but tomorrow we will train them to train robots to make products,” says founder Hernàn Luis y Prado. Workshops for Warriors is also partnering with online learning provider SolidProfessor to provide additional skills in engineering software use, including several Autodesk applications familiar in construction.

Manufacturing is hugely important in construction. Common stereotypes of construction tend to focus on design offices or site-based activities, overlooking the key inputs of manufacturers and suppliers. In the UK, according to the Construction Products Association, the sector directly provides jobs for 313,000 people across 21,000 companies and has an annual turnover of more than £50 billion. And this importance is set to grow as the industry expands its adoption of Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approaches in the coming years.

Sullivan rightly highlights the importance of off-site manufacture, and challenges the industry to become more like Formula 1 precision engineering. There are encouraging signs, even within one of the most conservative of UK construction sectors: housebuilding:

  • Earlier this year, Legal and General announced plans to “do for housing what Henry Ford did for the modern automotive industry” by manufacturing modular homes
  • Property Week recently reported the UK government and the mayor of London are drawing up plans to use modular construction to tackle the housing crisis
  • And when a skills crisis and a housing crisis coincide, you also need to review house-building skills (post).

Similar DfMA/off-site thinking is being applied to infrastructure projects and in relation to public and commercial buildings. Therefore, as Sullivan says, “We need to train differently“. We should be equipping people with 21st century technology skills, and breaking out of our traditional construction silos to learn from what the military, logistics and manufacturing can show us.

SkillsPlanner at Number 10

SkillsPlanner team at No10

A personal landmark and also one for SkillsPlanner. This month saw a meeting with the Policy Unit at Number 10 Downing Street, attended by myself, Scott Young (Tideway, right) and fellow Ethos partner Colin Middleton (who heads up the SkillsPlanner councils and brokerage work packages). The meeting followed an introduction made by Mime Consulting, who have developed Skills Route (a portal to help young people understand their options after finishing GCSEs). Number 10 asked for more information and offered a meeting, so we went along to explain the project.

It was a very successful meeting. Lots of time given for us to talk (we went over the allotted time by about 20 minutes), with some pertinent questions asked and further connections made. All rather exciting.