By Emma Dickson
Employers in the construction industry in Scotland hardly need to be reminded of the skills shortages which are hampering the industry as it continues to focus on recovery – shortages which are coming close to threatening the sector’s long-term health.
The fact that demand for skills is outstripping supply is not by any stretch of the imagination a new problem but, as infrastructure and building companies enter 2022 with workloads at their highest levels for 10 years, it is certainly retaining pole position in the typical employer’s list of worries.
Added to the nagging concerns of soaring prices, supply chain issues and materials scarcity, the ongoing struggle to secure and retain quality trades people is turning what should be a boom period for the industry into just another everyday nightmare.
But, rather than dwelling on what seems an increasingly difficult problem, discerning employers are challenging themselves, along with industry bodies and associations, to search for alternative, realistic solutions.
The first step, perhaps, is to look at what is actually working. The industry can be quietly proud of the way it supported apprentices over the Covid years, even though there was a backlog at the end of last year of around 1,000 who had still to qualify.
However, it takes time – four years, typically – and significant dedication to bring school leavers through traditional apprenticeship routes; there can be a drop-out rate of around 35% in some craft trades; and, while they may be very well trained, many do not have the life experience of more mature employees.
Though this is not intended in anyway to diminish the traditional entryway, some employers are also looking to take on older, with longer work histories, and offer them different, shorter apprenticeships on the grounds that they know what is expected of them and that, if they are keen to learn, they will progress quickly.
Of course, some employers may feel that taking on learners is an expensive option, even though there is significant financial help with training costs these days. In cases such as these, they could perhaps consider shared apprenticeships, which can work with a regional approach.
These schemes allow companies who may not be in a position to offer full-term training to dip in and out, with durations as short as three months, thus supporting the development of skills but with no commitment at the end. Apprentices in these circumstances are found a series of placements and help with securing permanent employment on completion.
Even employers who have invested in skills and nurtured employee relationships are facing another threat in the current climate – keeping their workers on board. Basic supply and demand is pushing wages up at an unprecedented level and skilled people are very much in a seller’s market.
But while worker loyalties may be strained by tempting offers from elsewhere, responsible employees may be persuaded to exercise restraint if offered a more structured personal development plan, or a healthier work-life balance.
On the same theme, making the industry attractive to the upcoming generations can only work to employers’ advantage. Gen Z, as well as demanding better conditions and company culture, can be attracted by an organisation which has demonstrable green credentials and differentiates itself from the competition by taking environmental, social and governance seriously.
Part-time posts, rather than full-time, are a useful tool for widening the pool of people open to skills development and may well increase diversity by attracting time-limited demographics into the industry. Internships and school taster sessions will also help to generate interest.
It could, in the end, be argued that one of the most positive approaches the industry could take would be to stop being so diffident about itself and start blowing its own trumpet.
Not much recognition is given outside the sector to the fact that construction has changed out of all recognition over recent years, becoming a key component in the drive to build a stronger, fairer and greener economic future.
Employees in construction have some of the best career paths in the country, are treated with dignity and respect and have sparkling prospects for advancement. Oh yes, and the wages can be terrific.
If we can effectively get that message across, then in a few years the current pain of lack of skills could become a fading memory.
Emma Dickson is Technical Director at Arcadis and industry co-chair of the Scottish Construction Leadership Forum’s Skills and Workforce sub group.
SMEs are encouraged to share their different approaches to resolve the skills shortages by emailing Emma directly via [email protected]
CASE STUDY: Employer who takes a flexible approach to finding the right candidate
Decorating business managing director Patrick Shields says employers need to be flexible and approachable when it comes to recruiting staff.
The boss of Cambuslang-based Optimus Decorating started in 2015 and now has 12 staff working on public sector, shopfitting and high-end domestic contracts.
He said: “The construction industry in Scotland is heading into a crisis at the moment as there is an ageing workforce and large numbers will be retiring from sector within the next 10 years.”
Patrick has just offered two-year apprenticeships to a 40-year-old single mother who was made redundant in the Covid period and also to a 27-year-old former support worker who wants to learn a trade. Both, he said, are excelling.
He said: “There is great potential for women to make a career in painting. I don’t, in fact, look at people’s CVs any more, I simply assess their attitude during their work trial.
“A four-year apprenticeship works for school leavers, but people who have already had life experience and worked in other sectors know what’s expected of them. A two-year apprenticeship is a great base for an individual and no one can take it away from them.”