A skilled approach is needed in construction sector

David Hodgson

The North West’s construction sector is being boosted by high demand for new housing, major infrastructure programmes and the continuing appetite for commercial development.

The opportunities are clear. So too are the challenges it faces when it comes to bridging the skills gap.

Lancashire Enterprise Partnership forecasts that in addition to the 32,500 people already employed in construction in the county a further 42,000 will be needed over the next decade to deliver an anticipated increase in new homes, improved transport links and other major building projects.

Lancashire is not alone. Massive infrastructure projects across the North West will drive the demand for skilled workers, according to industry watchers.

Figures from the Construction Skills Network last year forecast high demand for traditional trades over a five year period, including an extra 1,900 bricklayers and 3,250 electricians.

It is a UK challenge. A national report on the sector by Sir Oliver Letwin, commissioned by the government and published last month suggests a shortage of bricklayers will have a “significant biting constraint” on plans to boost the number of new homes built from 220,000 a year to 300,000.

Sir Oliver and his panel visited 15 large sites – of between 1,000 and 15,000 homes – in areas of high demand including the North West.

To meet the shortfall his report calls for 15,000 more bricklayers, almost a quarter of the size of the current workforce, to be trained over the next five years.

And earlier this year the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) revealed two-thirds of SME construction firms were struggling to hire bricklayers and carpenters as construction skills shortages hit a ‘record high’.
Chief executive Brian Berry said: “Skills shortages are sky rocketing and it begs the question, who will build the new homes and infrastructure projects the government is crying out for.”

And firing a Brexit warning, he added: “Without skilled labour from the EU, the skills shortages we face would be considerably worse, and it is not in anyone’s best interest to pull the rug out from under the sector by introducing an inflexible and unresponsive immigration system.”

The government responded to concerns last month with the launch of a £22m Construction Skills Fund will bring training to construction sites – allowing learners to apply their knowledge in a real-world environment.

The 18-month scheme aims to support 20 on-site training hubs in England, work experience and placements, “entry pathways” for the unemployed and help for “career switchers”.

Housing minister Dominic Raab said: “A construction workforce with new and innovative skills is essential to building a housing market fit for the future.”

David Hodgson is CEG’s head of strategic development in the North. He says that fewer people entering the sector coupled with an ageing existing workforce is adding to the skills challenge it faces.

He says: “As an industry we need to look at more innovative ways of getting people into construction.”

And that includes working with more young people to persuade them the construction industry is “the place to be”.

Construction and developers in the North West are working to attract the next generation into the sector.

The £430m City Deal for Lancashire, Preston and South Ribble has been working inspire pupils in secondary schools to think about sector skills including architecture, planning and construction.

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