Building Live 2017
On 28 November my colleague Ciaran Williams and I attended the Building Live conference at 155 Bishopsgate. Across several panel sessions during the day some of the great and the good in the construction industry talked about a variety of contemporary issues. One of the recurring themes across all sessions was the construction skills shortage and how this present day crisis will be exacerbated by Brexit in 2019. Whilst acknowledging the perceived weaknesses of statistics, some of the figures quoted at the conference bear repeating:
- The Federation of Masters Builders reports that some 70% of their members can’t find a plumber and some 60% face difficulty in sourcing bricklayers.
- The RICS say that some 8% of UK construction workers hail from the EU, rising to 13% in London, with the percentage on some specific sites being much higher e.g. 70% of labour on the Old Oak Common Crossrail site are EU nationals.
- Within the UK every year some 70,000 people leave the construction industry but only 40,000 join.
- According to the Financial Times, by 2025, the UK will require 1.8m engineers and technicians but on present figures we will fall way short.
Fenwick Elliott does not often become involved in projects where problems arise directly out of a lack of skilled personnel. Far more common is the dispute that concerns individuals - engineers, architects, quantity surveyors, pipefitters and concrete pourers - who from training and experience do possess the requisite skills but still commit occasional cockups as a result of human failings.
My only direct experience of a “skills crisis” was some years ago on a high profile project (which I had better not name) that suffered from a multitude of difficulties including a shortage of skilled electricians due to the much more attractive terms on offer for sparkies at a concurrent and almost as prominent project (which I also had better not name). I interviewed one of the electricians for a witness statement and asked where he had previously worked. He answered he had been working in a curry house on the nearby High Street but when I queried if this had been a refurbishment job he replied that he had in fact been working as a waiter. The high profile project was also remarkable for the number of on-site electricians who failed to identify samples of red standard 2 core 1.5mm cable as comprising part of the fire alarm system.
" Whether or not there is a skills crisis it is common ground that joining the construction industry is not generally regarded as an attractive career option. "
If the statistics set out above are to be believed then the UK is already facing a significant shortage of skilled construction workers. However, the construction industry has never suffered from a shortage of cynicism and several people I have spoken to since the conference expressed contrary views along the lines that the “skills crisis” is: (a) the accepted outcome of years of cost cutting and low margins; (b) nothing to worry about; or, (c) not worth worrying about because it is a problem but no-one can be bothered to do anything concrete about it (maybe due to a lack of skilled pourers).
Whether or not there is a skills crisis it is common ground that joining the construction industry is not generally regarded as an attractive career option. On a brief vox pop, the bulk of those present at the conference – all of whom were directly involved in construction in one way or another – would not admit to positively encouraging their children to follow them into the same line of work. At first blush this seems odd. Just on the money side any scan of the vacancy pages in Building magazine will show that the earnings for entry level professionals such as quantity surveyors, structural engineers etc. are higher than the UK average gross earnings of £27,600 p.a. (£34,600 in London). There are also many possibilities for career advancement: engineers and quantity surveyors can rise to be commercial directors, divisional directors etc. Moreover, as one of the speakers pointed out at the conference, construction is probably one of the few industries in which you can start as an unqualified labourer and become managing director if you have the talent and enthusiasm. Speaking as a solicitor my opinion has always been that the construction sector is one of the most interesting and down to earth fields of law to work in.
So the essential problem seems to be that despite the career opportunities, despite the attraction of creating things (or destroying things – plenty of jobs in demolition) and despite the value of construction to society overall, it is still not seen as a “sexy” industry.
Assuming it exists then there is no obvious panacea for the skills crisis. Several speakers at the conference suggested that there should be a revised focus on technical education and hands-on skills. This seems to me to make sense and in the UK we do have a historical precedent. The 1870 Education Act was introduced amongst other things to ensure that the workforce coming into Britain’s industries was sufficiently educated to understand and operate the new technologies. Victorian Britain therefore avoided a skills crisis by thinking ahead. Maybe we now need to do the same.