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Construction in a post-Brexit world

As we prepare to enter a new era, BSRIA's Mike Lee calls for urgent action to put vocational training at the heart of the sector's improvement plans

Posted by Julian Owen | January 10, 2019 | People, policy, politics, money

The UK is on the verge of what is probably the most momentous change to its business climate since it entered the Common Market more than 40 years ago. Yet the construction sector is struggling to meet historical challenges, let alone those which it will inevitably face post-Brexit. 

1. Shortage of skills 

22 per cent of workers in the sector are aged between 50 and 60, compared with only nine per cent being 24 or younger. The challenge is how to transfer all that knowledge to new entrants before it is lost. Surveys repeatedly show that the construction industry is not attracting enough talent to meet growing demand; a November BSRIA survey found that 78 per cent of member companies were having trouble finding suitably qualified workers. 

The Government’s approach to this issue has resulted in a situation where, in 2018, fewer students are considering university courses for fear of the debt they will incur. Its flagship apprenticeship scheme - for many, the utopian answer to encouraging vocational training - is stalling, with only 114,400 overall starts between August and October 2017, compared with 155,700 in the same period in 2016. Recent announcements allowing levy payments to more easily flow down through the supply chain are welcome attempts to reverse this trend.

2. Stagnant productivity

A recent World Economic Forum study found that the construction industry’s productivity advancements have been “meagre” compared to those in the rest of the world’s industries over the last 50 years. The study reported that the construction industry has actually lost productivity in the last four decades. The causes for this have been identified as: 

 - Inadequate project planning, with workers spending up to 63 per cent of their time waiting around

 - Poor collaboration and communication on projects

 - Fragmentation of the sector causing too many handoffs and rework within the project

 - Shortage of skilled workers, resulting in the slow adoption of new techniques and technologies such as BIM 

The industry appears like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights when faced with the challenge of delivering a project on time and within budget

Graduates who enter the workforce are found to be only partially ready for work. BSRIA’s experience has been that many of its member organisations have needed to put their graduate recruits on a foundation year of additional training before they are ready to be productive. 

The industry appears like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights when faced with the challenge of delivering a project on time and within budget – only a quarter of projects are completed within original deadlines. Cost and schedule overruns seem to be the norm in construction. BSRIA has led industry attempts to improve this, with its BG6 Design Framework for Building Services, and a soft landings process progressively being adopted by Government and other organisations. 

3. Sustainable construction 

The Government has set our industry a target to lower greenhouse emissions by 50 per cent by 2025. While admiring ambition, some would say this may be unrealistic. According to the UK Green Building Council, the construction and maintenance of buildings and other structures is responsible for around half of CO₂ emissions in the UK. 

Cement is a particular culprit, accounting for half of the industry’s emissions. BSRIA is supporting initiatives around the circular economy designed to eradicate as much waste as possible; if sustainability in construction is to be addressed, part of the solution is to cascade innovation to all levels of the industry. 

We will not be able to address these issues without focusing on the provision of vocational training. Short courses, in particular, offer the opportunity for exposure to the latest technologies, processes and ideas, leading to an increase in our capacity to adopt new methods. From these foundations will spring improvements to our productivity. 

The development of training modules aimed at recent entrants to the sector will make them more productive more quickly, improve worker motivation, and reduce staff turnover and absenteeism. Training in the latest project management and construction methods will ultimately improve work quality, leading to better customer satisfaction and improvement in the wellbeing of building occupants. 

Mike Lee is training manager at BSRIA

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