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Employment numbers highlight the scale of construction's skills challenge

A year-and-a-half ago, the CITB’s Construction Skills Network Report said the industry needed 232,000 more workers by 2020 to meet the skills gap.

Any idea on how much progress we’re making on that figure?

If a new report by Kier is to be believed, it’s not a great deal, with the research commissioned by the contractor suggesting the industry will need to add 400,000 new recruits per year to keep pace with growing demand. Unfortunately, looking back at the historical trend, this target seems out of reach.

Achievable target?

The ONS collects data on the number of people employed in the industry, both in direct employment and those who are self-employed. The latest estimate, published last month, suggests there were 2.32m people as of Q2 this year.

To put that in context, it’s 10.7 per cent higher than the low point reached in Q1 2013, when the number of people working in the industry hit 2.1m. But it’s also 9.9 per cent lower than the pre-recession high of 2.58m, reached in Q3 2008.

Clearly there is still a significant gap – but does the data suggest that a target of 400,000 new recruits per year is achievable?

“Only by targeting areas the industry has previously neglected for recruitment, is that number realistically going to be achieved”

When you consider that, on average, quarterly change in employee numbers has been in negative territory for the last 10 years, it doesn’t look good.

Since Q1 2007, the average quarter-on-quarter change in the industry’s workforce has been -0.2 per cent. While the past decade may have included one of the deepest recessions on record, this figure still pours cold water on any thought of adding 400,000 new workers every year.

Taking the initiative

Clearly there is still a long way to go. Two new initiatives, however, offer some degree of encouragement.

Following its research, Kier has pledged to offer 1 per cent of its workforce as school career ambassadors in a bid to tackle the sector’s “image crisis” and attract new talent.

It’s a particularly important initiative considering some of the findings of its research, aside from the daunting 400,000 figure. Kier’s study found that 90 per cent of teachers across the UK were unaware of the scale of the skills gap in construction, while 41 per cent weren’t aware of a skills gap at all.

That’s perhaps the most worrying aspect of it: that we are not focusing on future generations to hit that 400,000 figure.

Kier chief executive Haydn Mursell said the initiative would help to “engage with at least 10,000 pupils over the next 12 months” – a good start, but one that requires further support.

Aside from Kier, the CITB this week has launched a campaign to get more women into construction across Wales – a particularly important initiative given that ONS data points to only one in seven industry employees in the region being female.

Initiatives like these are vital. But unless more is done, hitting that 400,000 target may prove impossible.

Only by targeting areas that industry recruitment has previously neglected can that number realistically be achieved

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