Despite a fairly dismal January, the last few months of ONS data give a few small glimpses of recovery in the construction sector, particularly where housing is concerned.
However, the faster the industry recovers, the quicker companies will find themselves grappling with a talent shortage resulting from the deep cuts that many in the sector made in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
A serious shortage of qualified construction professionals with 3-5 years’ experience is emerging, which could have worrying consequences for the industry’s ability to respond to any growth in demand, and how much that expansion will cost them in terms of increases to their overheads.
When the credit crunch hit and construction projects were frozen or cancelled, one of the first actions taken by many construction industry businesses to control their overheads was to cancel or curtail graduate trainee programmes for white collar construction professionals, such as quantity surveyors or planners. This meant fewer graduates started out on careers in the construction profession.
Young construction professionals who had already been hired in recent graduate intakes were also targeted for redundancy on a “last in, first out” basis.
As a result of this gloom, a high proportion of qualified or aspiring junior construction professionals who struggled to find work in the aftermath of the financial crisis made the decision to move into different sectors or even overseas.
This has led to a severe shortage of professionals with 3-5 years’ experience, as almost an entire generation of construction professionals has been lost. This is making it harder for construction businesses to recruit candidates with suitable skills and experience at this level, and in this wage bracket.
This skills crisis, combined with an already tight recruitment market, means that wage growth for junior level construction professionals is outstripping the rest of the workforce.
Salary data we collected from our candidate pool found that white collar construction professionals with 3-5 years’ experience have seen salary increases of 14.3% over five years. Pay packets have risen faster than the national average, from £35,000 a year five years ago to £40,000 now. Over the same period average UK wages only increased by 10.4%.
Although we saw similar problems in the recovery that followed the early nineties recession, it is disconcerting that such a serious and specific skills gap should again emerge, when the construction sector as a whole is still operating at well under its full capacity. As the economy recovers and the number of projects and vacancies increase, the skills shortage is going to be much more noticeable.
At this stage in a recession you would expect the construction sector to be able to draw on a fairly deep pool of underutilised talent. However, we are finding that an increasing number of businesses are struggling to find the suitably qualified junior planners, quantity surveyors and engineers that are so crucial to getting projects off the drawing board and into the construction phase.
To fill the skills gap in the short term, construction businesses are having to spend more time, effort and money to secure the right staff. In the longer term, more will need to be done to attract students into construction industry related undergraduate and postgraduate degrees such as quantity surveying. A concerted recruitment drive by the industry will prevent today’s skills gap from becoming a serious skills crisis.
Andrew Szklarek, director at construction and engineering recruitment company Project Resource