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Can internships narrow the skills gap in construction?

Johnathan Bulmer, MD of Cleveland Containers, says that interns could be key to addressing the skills gap in the construction sector

Posted by Hannah Vickers | August 23, 2017 | People, policy, politics, money

The UK construction industry is growing, generating almost £90 billion annually and employing more than 2.93 million people. Considering this accounts for approximately 10% of the working British population, it makes me question why there is still a skills shortage in this industry.

One of the main issues is that many construction workers are now retiring, and to make up for this shortfall, we need an influx of new employees. The problem is, that one fifth of all vacancies within the construction industry are hard to fill because employees can’t find staff with the right qualifications or skills.

We’re not providing individuals – who may have tons of enthusiasm, but no previous experience – with the opportunity to start a career in construction

So, perhaps therein lies the issue. We’re not providing individuals – who may have tons of enthusiasm, but no previous experience – with the opportunity to start a career in construction. What we should be doing is focusing on our youth of today. We should be training them so that they can build up the experience to embark on a career in construction. I believe the best way to do this is through internships.

Internships provide the intern with a period of time to train on the job, during which potential employers can determine whether or not they meet the high standards expected from the industry. Interns will also gain an insight into what day-to-day working life involves, and experience different areas across the industry.

Those who possess good communication, great time management and organisation skills will succeed in construction. A desire to learn will help interns reap many benefits, including gaining invaluable industry knowledge, building contacts, improving their confidence and providing them with the possibility of a full-time job.

The benefits for employers are clear: in the short-term, an extra pair of hands to help out with work and in the long-term, the potential to gain a full-time employee who can really add value to the company

The benefits for employers are clear, too: in the short-term, an extra pair of hands to help out with work and in the long-term, the potential to gain a full-time employee who can really add value to the company.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a route that we as an industry, have been taking. Only 1% of employers have ever considered hiring an apprentice or an inexperienced member of staff, and for those who did, it was highly unlikely that there was a guaranteed job available at the end of the project.

So, should we really be surprised to hear that CITB data has shown that young people don’t view the construction industry as a career option?

Now is the time to change this. We need to train interns in the construction industry, to ensure they develop the essential skills required, and build a desire to continue a career with us. Only that will help to stop us from running into the same issues in the future.

Not only that, but changes are becoming more apparent in the construction industry that requires everyone to undergo training. Up until recently, we didn’t really “do” digital – technology just didn’t affect us like it did other industries. This is now changing however, with a technological boom on the cards.

One way technology is affecting us is with the introduction of drones, changing the way we operate by eliminating human error and improving health and safety.

Augmented Reality is another aspect expected to take the construction industry by storm. Also referred to as AR, this technology superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the world. Not only do we predict that this will highlight potential hazards or issues of a project before they arise, but it will also allow for a more collaborative research. Planners and architects will be able to work with clients and contractors more easily, as everyone will be able to see the bigger picture together.

The other technological aspect thought to affect us is Building Information Modelling (BIM). This will replace traditional blueprints with interactive 3D models, bringing together all project information into one place. With this considered to be more sophisticated over time, it’s likely that this will eventually transform into 5D modelling.

Because this is all new, current employers of the construction industry will need to learn how to work with this technology.  Why not train interns at the same time? After all, they will be the ones who shape the construction industry in the future.

Whilst it’s all well and good discussing the merits of interns, I believe it’s time to stop discussing, and start taking action. We will after all, be competing with many different industries for interns: architecture, hospitality and healthcare to name a few. And right now, interns can find better job prospects long-term in accounting, consulting and IT. That’s something the construction industry needs to address.

Another fact we can’t deny is that Brexit will have a profound impact on the construction industry. Whilst we don’t have any solid facts, it’s predicted that a ‘soft’ Brexit could see our industry lose out on 136,000 workers, and a ‘hard’ Brexit 215,000 workers. We really need to start closing that gap.

Ideally when finding new recruits, a combination of academic and real-world learning will produce the best results. It’s extremely common for professional and personal development to be best achieved through this balance of theory, and actually doing it. Getting it right enables a qualified candidate to step straight into an employed position and start working at a professional level.

Interns are therefore paramount in shaping the future of the construction industry: by working alongside experienced employees now, they will help to drive us forward in the long-term.

Johnathan Bulmer is Managing Director at Cleveland Containers

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