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Construction Leaders Forum: Lament for 'shocking waste' of talent

Construction leaders outline the state of the employment market and the loss of skills

Construction leaders have talked of the “shocking waste” of talent that the recession has caused, in sometimes passionate arguments about the need for government intervention in the construction industry.

Members of the Construction Leaders Forum said that the recruitment market had become a buyer’s market, with talented recruits much easier to come by. But the easing has had its costs too. One said: “So much damage has been done to human capital unnecessarily. A huge amount of young people inevitably go. It’s the waste that’s awful, the shocking waste of training and development.”

On top of that, employees are under unprecedented stress from the uncertainty in the market, a motivational challenge that bosses are acutely aware of. “None of us can say don’t worry over next 12 months,” one said.

The state of the recruitment market in construction will not come as a surprise to the industry, where heavy job losses have been the norm for months now. But the forum laid bare the extent of it.

Almost 50 per cent of construction leaders believe their workforce will contract by up to 10 per cent or more this year; 16 per cent of participants believe their workforce will be more than 10 per cent smaller; while 32 per cent believe it will be up to 10 per cent smaller.

The job losses could have serious consequences, not just for the industry but for society as a whole, some argued, and this was a key argument for intervention on behalf of the government.

Many were grim in their assessments of how bad the situation could get, but passionate in their belief that if the government could intervene it could make a huge difference. Some said that they expected unemployment could reach 3 million by the end of this year, and 4 million ultimately.

Some said that they felt younger employees were still struggling to understand the impact of the recession, not having worked through one before, but not all agreed.

“I think [young people] get it. They’re reading about it, watching it on the news. We need to be 100 per cent honest, and communicate well in these conditions. All I want to do is come out of this fit and ready. We’re trying really hard not to let people go but sometimes you hit a wall and have to,” said one.

Another said that there was a “hell of a difference between hearing it on the news… and being made redundant, saying to your wife or husband: ‘Darling I’ve lost my job.’”

Another added that it was forcing younger staff to learn quickly: “It’s difficult for young people, having to make someone redundant for the first time. They may never have had to look people in the eye and let them go.”

Many said they did not expect employee relations to deteriorate, but a significant minority (one-third) said that there would be an increase in disputes and strike action by employees over pay and work conditions. “We’re getting union activity. We haven’t seen them for 10 years and suddenly there’s now a Ucatt official on site,” said one.

The difficulty of motivating employees was a recurring theme: “It’s a strange position to be in. They’re flat-out six days a week, but essentially running off the end of a cliff. There’s huge uncertainty as to whether there will be a job next week. The difficulty is maintaining the motivation among the best people, when lots might pick up P45s at the end.”

Some construction firms are taking the opportunity to restructure their workforces given the state of the market, and bring better people in. One contributor said the recession was an opportunity to “find better people and swap them round. You can’t talk about it, say well, you’re really good but if I find someone better… It’s about improving the team.”

Another noted that there “must be lots of good people in the marketplace.”

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