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21,000 reasons to tackle Scotland's skills gap

Construction has always been one of the linchpins of the Scottish economy.

After all, the sector’s strong performance ensured that the economy as a whole did not go into recession during 2015.

But according to the CITB’s Construction Skills Network report, a huge deficit of 21,000 recruits has the potential to wreak more havoc across the industry than Storm Jonas, while simultaneously presenting some very pertinent long-term questions for the sector’s future.

While predicting that thousands of recruits will be needed to replace those retiring amid our collective workforce dropping from 230,000 to some 219,000 by the close of 2020, the report’s other significant bombshell was that our sector’s growth will only be a fifth of our UK neighbours.

Growth slowdown

Fundamentally, the CITB believes that the Scottish workforce will peak this year after benefiting from growth of 6 per cent over the past three years.

Of course, it should be borne in mind that the predictions reflect the completion of transport projects in Scotland, as well as the start of new nuclear power plants in England and Wales – and that, despite a 0.7 per cent annual decline, we will still need to recruit around 4,200 people.

“Construction in Scotland has the slowest growth rate of any nation or region”

However, this doesn’t change the fact that we have the slowest growth rate in construction of any nation or region, and are the only part of the UK that is expecting a fall in the construction workforce.

For the rest of this decade, the construction industry’s growth in Scotland is forecast at 0.5 per cent per year, while the UK is expected to hit a much sturdier 2.5 per cent.

Beyond 2020, work is expected to commence on several noteworthy projects - dualling the A9 road between Perth and Inverness, central belt rail improvements, and the installation of offshore wind farms, to name a few.

Looming crisis

Should we use that dreaded word ‘crisis’ in the meantime? It’s clear that infrastructure is key to the industry; construction’s outlook would be much rosier if significant gains were being made in this area. Housebuilding also remains buoyant, which has been a major driver of the construction sector.

Looked at another way, the forecast can be seen as a call to action.

To my mind, a shortage of skills is our biggest challenge. If there is indeed a crisis looming, then it’s in ever-increasing workloads that are pushing existing staff to breaking point.

“Ever-increasing workloads are pushing staff to breaking point”

Across the recruitment sector, we’ve seen ongoing difficulties in sourcing labour, particularly with the likes of bricklayers. There’s a real dearth of both blue and white collar construction workers.

Let’s get to the crux of the matter; without the skills at our disposal, sustainable growth will simply not be possible for the Scottish construction industry.

Therefore, the skills gap – not to mention a wider complacency that’s in evidence – must be swiftly addressed, and the only way to do it is by placing a major new focus on attracting more young people, twinned with a government-backed apprenticeship drive that harnesses the talent we already have.

It’s critical that we start to put the building blocks in place now, or a vital opportunity will be missed to tackle a damaging skills drought, the worst excesses of which can yet be offset.

Chris Connelly is a director at Lusona

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