Alongside strong people management, what should the construction sector be doing to recruit, retain and develop workforces?
According to the Construction Skills Network’s industry outlook report, the sector’s workforce needs an extra 225,000 workers by 2027 to support housebuilding, infrastructure and maintenance projects. It faces a number of challenges in doing this, however: construction vacancies hit a 20-year high in 2022, and thousands of workers have left the industry through retirement or because they decided to return to their home country. Further research by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has shown that difficulty attracting people into the sector means employers often fall at the first hurdle; only 8% of respondents to its survey between the ages of 16 and 18 said they would be ‘very likely’ to consider construction as a career.
“From building the homes the country needs, to constructing energy and transport infrastructure and retrofitting the built environment to help drive down energy bills and meet net zero targets, the need to recruit and retain talent in the sector has arguably never been greater,” says Marcus Bennett, Head of Industry Analysis and Forecasting at the CITB. The CITB supports a number of initiatives aimed at boosting the number of people beginning careers in construction, such as information portal Go Construct and the job site Talentview. So, the tide may slowly be turning. This year, the number of apprentices starting a career in construction increased for the first time in six years.
But the skills pipeline will take time to become fully productive, which makes good people practices in construction more important than ever. “It’s about meeting demand, not just counting people,” adds Bennett. “Part of that demand could be met by ensuring fewer people leave construction. Part of the demand could be met by helping companies improve their productivity through modernising and up-skilling, which in turn improves their profitability and future viability.” Those who already work in the sector feel good about their jobs, according to employee engagement technology company Inpulse. It found that, compared to other sectors, construction had higher than average levels of commitment at 77%, compared to 71%.
Matt Stephens, Inpulse’s founder, says this is a reflection of the sector’s drive to improve employee engagement and experience and retain key staff. However, Stephens adds that there are a number of things construction businesses can do to maintain these high levels of engagement. “Ensuring people can see a path to continue their career within their organisation is crucial to retaining talent and building a skilled workforce. In this sector, where changing projects or work locations is the norm, sharing the work pipeline and what it means for each individual is critical to avoid anxiety and fears around job security, especially during a cost-of-living crisis,” he explains. “Retention is massively improved by focusing on clear and timely communication.” One example might be when a construction project ends and there is no clear next project to move to, he adds: “This is where honest, regular and consistent communication is critical even if it’s saying that there is nothing to say, or explaining how securing the project is going.”
There are also a number of resources available, such as Markel’s (specialist insurer in the construction market) Business Hub, for construction businesses to ensure they can onboard new employees easily and make the working environment as comfortable as possible. The online hub includes a range of contracts, letter templates and health and safety guides.
But it is also crucial that employers look towards the future in terms of creating workplaces that are welcoming and inclusive. “Additionally, we need to help the industry understand that potential employees’ expectations are changing and to create a work environment that a greater diversity of people are happy to work in, that - where possible - offers greater flexibility and embraces new technologies, materials and ways of working,” says Bennett.
According to the CITB’s Rethinking Recruitment report, women make up just 14% of the workforce and workers from ethnic minorities 6%, despite respectively accounting for 50% and 14% of the working age population. “Improving the diversity of the workforce will help fill the skills gap, while bringing new perspectives and ideas,” he adds. “Our research shows that construction workers are more likely to have found a job through their personal network and word of mouth rather than through competitive application. If workers without the right personal contacts don’t get a chance to apply, the industry misses their talent.”
The CITB acknowledges that the sector could do more to advertise the plus points of working in such a dynamic environment. The Construction Leadership Council is working with employers and the CITB to highlight best practice and promote attraction initiatives. Employers can also access free, industry-endorsed training and resources on improving workplace cultures from the Supply Chain Sustainability School’s Fairness, Inclusion and Respect (FIR) programme. Such initiatives all contribute to changing the future pipeline for the sector, concludes Bennett. “The construction industry has a reputation for being muddy, manual, and male, making it extremely important that we convey how much the industry has to offer,” he says. “Recruiting enough of the right people is ultimately down to employers – presenting to a new generation an industry they want to join.”
Learn more about how Markel can help construction firms navigate their day-to-day challenges here.