The construction industry is on a cliff-edge. Already struggling to fill vacancies across the board we are faced with an aging workforce, 25% of whom are due to retire in the next ten years. We struggle to recruit, to train and retain talent. How did we get into this mess and how can we pull ourselves out of it?
It's an issue with a long history, but I'd say that construction has an image problem, which is mystifying to me. We spend 90% of our lives in buildings. If they don't work properly the impact on us is immediate and huge. And yet most of us take them completely for granted, ignoring the ingenuity, expertise and skill it takes to design and build these complex structures.
From the top down
This lack of appreciation reaches right up to the top levels of government. Construction accounts for around 6% of the UK's GDP and yet it has no dedicated ministry and construction ministers change so rapidly that you'd think construction is simply a probation period for trainee ministers. Since August 2016 there have been 12 construction ministers -- average length of time in post is just 7 months. Housing fares similarly badly -- with an astonishing five Housing Ministers in 2022 alone.
And it starts right at the bottom too. Our education system seems to focus on an increasingly narrow range of skills with the single objective of filling as many university places as possible.
With no effective government oversight or support, this massively important industry is left to its own devices and the result is not always pretty.
This lack of real interest in training and education for trades is clearly demonstrated in the government's recent decision to close the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure, due to poor promotion and funding. This was a government flagship programme to "grow our own."
No incentive to invest in training
Once we're in a spiral of decline that sees construction skills treated with scant respect, then price becomes the overriding consideration. So major housebuilders and many large contractors, working to fixed-price tenders, employ sub-contracted labour that is picked up and put down as order books dictate. With this shifting labour market there can be no incentive or confidence to make long term investment in a workforce. No wonder at all that apprenticeships are so difficult to get off the ground.
And no wonder that the standards of building projects are not always what they should be. Why should a contractor care about their quality of work when clearly no-one values their skill?
The Grenfell tragedy graphically exposed where this depressing trend leads and if the resulting legislation can bring back a sense of pride in this astonishingly inventive industry, then this can only be good.
A different way
Here at Knauf we don't believe that everything needs to start or end with government, however. As a proud supplier to the UK construction industry, we believe in setting trends not following them. One of our core values as a business is to nurture our 40,000 employees around the globe.
In the UK business we have many schemes aimed at recruiting, training and developing our staff. The latest of these is our Knauf Futures programme.
We're facing up to the demographic challenges of our industry and recognising the catastrophic loss of knowledge that this will cause. Knauf Futures identifies people who are approaching retirement and pairs them with an apprentice to manage a transfer of skills, knowledge and experience over time. Some things can only be understood through experience and we needed a way to ensure we capture that knowledge and keep it within the business.
We're also embracing the focus on skills and competency set out in both the Building Safety Act and the Code for Construction Product Information. We're happy to do this as we see it as an investment in our people and investing in our most valuable asset must always make sense.
Investing in people is a sure way to demonstrate that they are valued, and providing a clearly defined path to career growth is a way to keep people in the business. Not only keeping them, but encouraging them to be entrepreneurial in their thinking, proactive and ambitious for themselves and for the business.
There is no silver bullet that will attract the most talented school leavers into the construction industry. We need to be more vocal and more visible in celebrating the successes of the sector. We need to engage with schools before pupils make career-defining choices and we need to value and reward our people.
It's a big challenge, but if every business in the supply chain were to recognise the role that effective training and skill development can play then we'd be several steps along the way to building a sustainable workforce for the decades to come.