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Grab the best of UK talent

Attracting staff from other industries could help construction fill the skills gap, says Deborah Hatch

While the industry enjoys a boom period, skills shortages are rife and firms are struggling to recruit construction professionals.

Many firms have begun to hire non-cognates to fill gaps in their workforce and bring a fresh perspective to the way they work. Mace, a leading UK construction consultancy, is one of them.

It has a dedicated recruitment arm, Mace People, and a policy of recruiting top people from other industries.

It’s a strategy that clearly pays off as Mace has increased its staff from 800 to over 2,700 in the last seven years.

Its dynamic workforce includes the recent winner of Construction News’ Future Leader Awards, Catherine Tallis. The talented project manager has been with Mace for two years, after being head hunted by Mace People while working in an unrelated role for an international development consultancy.

“When I received the initial phone call from Mace it was perfect timing. I was in my mid-twenties, feeling dissatisfied at work and in need of a new career challenge. Mace offered me the chance to work in a new sector, doing something completely different,” says Ms Tallis.

As a successful young professional working in Hertford, Catherine was targeted by Mace because it was seeking to expand in the local area.

“Now I’m working on the Building Schools for the Future project in Hertfordshire, which is ideal as I went to school there myself and know the issues. I think Mace recognised from my experience that I would be better suited to the public sector and matched my skills quite well.”

Finding quality

For recruiters, finding the right calibre of people, in the right location, now depends on recognising and assessing transferable skills as much as formal qualifications.

Joe Johnson joined the Civil Engineering Contractors Association as director of training after 22 years in the Navy. “As a lieutenant I learned quickly how to win people over and developed the interpersonal skills that I use now when speaking to politicians,” says Mr Johnson.

“There is a wariness about taking on ex-forces personnel as people tend to think we just shout. But the benefit of being institutionalised by the Navy for 22 years is that it teaches you not to dither and simply to come up with a solution, then apply it.”

Although his final role in the Navy was engineering related, Mr Johnson had qualified as an internal verifier and NVQ assessor, and undertaken sizeable Training Needs Analysis projects before the CECA hired him.

His potential as a thought leader and interpreter of government policy was, by then, enough to compensate for a lack of construction experience.

Topping up existing skills and building new ones is part of the challenge for the growing number of non-cognates entering construction.

Whether through mentoring or training schemes, offering the right people the opportunity to develop construction skills once they’ve joined the industry is vital. One of the main difficulties is that too many employers are not investing enough in building and managing the skill of their workforce.

UK firms need to respond by putting the managers in place to deploy skills and encourage people.

“When there are skills shortages, employers have got to be prepared to grow and develop the people they take on,” says Sarah van der Heyden, a skills policy advisor with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

“A new recruit may not have the people skills for construction but with the right commitment they can be trained and developed,” Ms van der Heyden adds.

“When the construction industry in New Zealand was hit with a similar problem, three main tactics were applied: make, buy or fix.

“Make training and education a long-term solution, buy or poach talent from other businesses and attract skilled professionals from overseas, or fix the problem by looking inside the business and managing the talent you already have.”

Neglected skills

In a survey of the CIPD’s 2,000 members last year, one third felt that the skills of their workforce were not being managed properly.

The Government has responded to the issue by establishing its UK Commission for Employment and Skills on 1 April 2008, as recommended by the Leitch Review of Skills in 2006.

The report sets targets to increase skills across all UK industry by 2020. It aims to achieve this by strengthening the employer voice and developing a world-leading skills system.

As one of the UK’s 25 sector skills councils, ConstructionSkills is already working with employers on initiatives to tackle recruitment difficulties and identify which qualifications are important to the sector.

To meet expected demand, ConstructionSkills forecasts that the industry will need to recruit over 348,000 new professionals by 2010.

Recruitment consultancies are noticing a change in employer attitudes as a result, says Duncan Collins, director at Hays Construction.

“Employers are increasingly looking at recruiting people from other backgrounds.”

Mr Collins also says that “while transferable skills such as commercial awareness and team management are always in demand, they still need to be complemented by the necessary qualifications and experience”.

While bright professionals will always be an asset regardless of industry background, it is up to the construction industry to shape them in to experts. To put it simply, the challenge is two-fold: recruiting and retaining talent.

After two years in construction, Catherine Tallis, is positive that she made the right decision in joining the industry.

“Construction has far more opportunities to offer than the industry I came from and it’s great not being cooped up in an office all the time. I really can’t see myself getting bored of my job.”

Further help online

Civil Engineering Contractors Association www.ceca.co.uk

ConstructionSkills www.constructionskills.net

Mace People www.people-powered.com

Hays Construction www.hays.com

World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch review www.dius.gov.uk/publications/worldclassskills

UK Commission for Employment and Skills www.ukces.org.uk

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development www.cipd.co.uk

Attracting professionals from other industries: A headhunter's view

Graduate intakes are down and employers are already finding it difficult to recruit and keep qualified staff. As a result, many firms are now looking beyond traditional methods of recruiting and head hunting new talent from other industries.

Elizabeth Drake, a senior account executive at construction head hunters Invenio Search, says: “There is an increasingly high number of non-cognate graduates going into Quantity Surveying and Project Management roles on their graduate training schemes, and I have been told by at least one client, that non-cogs on average seem to be performing better.”

Recognising individuals that have the right aptitude and transferable skills to succeed is becoming increasingly important for recruiters in the construction industry. Mace’s strategy of taking top people from other industries has helped it increase its from 800 to over 2,700 in the last seven years.

But while attracting professionals from other industries is going some way to bridging the industry’s skills gap, many of the new recruits are still at the beginning of their careers.

Ms Drake continues: “I do come across the odd person that has entered the industry later in their career, having done something else previously – though this will be at an intermediate rather than senior level.”

This signals the industry desperately needs to do more to retain the experts it already has. If construction firms are to fill intermediate through to top level positions, they need to reassess the way talent is being managed.

Increasing training provision to attract and retain professionals is part of the solution, but showing the right level of commitment to those already established in the industry is crucial to its long term success.