What should the UK’s construction workforce look like – and how can we get there?

Talent has been a long-standing issue for UK construction companies. A fundamental issue is that there aren’t enough people in the industry; over the last twelve months there have been an average of 38,000 vacancies each quarter, the highest since records began. 

This directly impacts businesses. Our research into UK construction found that one in three companies are currently finding it difficult to recruit (36%).  

Right now, construction is going through a transformative period, as companies grapple with current challenges and rethink how they use technology to meet new standards. It’s also the perfect time to look again at strengthening our talent pipeline.  

It’s not only about attracting more people to the industry, but addressing related issues including candidates’ age range and diversity, digital skills, retention and wellbeing. 

So, what do we need from the workforce of the future – and how can we get there? 

Download the full report, UK construction in 2022: Addressing talent challenges for the future workforce 

More digitally skilled talent 

Construction companies are evolving how they work – and this will reshape the skills needed in each business. Over the next five years, 95% of UK firms plan to invest in emerging technologies, such as off-site manufacturing and 3D printing. 

As a result, professionals are aware of the growing need for technology and innovation specialists. A third of construction companies are already trying to hire new skills into the business (35%), but many foresee growing challenges caused by the rarity of candidates in this area.  

In fact, one fifth say the main cause of all talent shortages over the next decade will be a lack of digital and technology skills. 

Attracting people with specialised digital skills to the industry will be key for companies’ development. Links between colleges and construction businesses will help to ensure that new entrants have the skills most needed for the industry, and provide clear routes into employment. 

However, upskilling existing construction workers will also be critical – and positively, 39% of businesses are already putting money into training their employees. Altogether, this will create a wider pool of digital skills in the industry to help firms achieve their ambitions. 

Attracting a wider age range 

Construction’s talent shortages are set to worsen in the years ahead, because of the high average age and retirement rate of employees. Statistics suggest that workers are concentrated in the age 50 to 56 bracket, with the result that the sector will lose around a quarter of its workforce over the next decade. 

A quarter of companies (23%) are hiring purely to replace people retiring from the industry. Covid-19 also accelerated this process in some cases; a third of professionals (34%) say that hiring today is hard because so many people left construction during the pandemic. 

There’s clearly a need for construction to attract candidates with a wider age range, whether that’s younger, early career entrants or people pivoting from another sector. But our research suggests that right now the construction industry has a serious image problem. 

Professionals say construction is less attractive than other sectors (28%), there’s limited awareness of career options (27%) and construction is seen as a career of last choice (26%). At an industry level, a national campaign may be needed to address perceptions and highlight the growing opportunities across the UK.  

Equally it’s important to make sure that there are clear routes into construction. Apprenticeships and graduate programmes can help people to gain qualifications while working, and positively one third of businesses are prioritising investments in apprenticeships (33%) over the next two years. 

Cementing greater diversity 

The construction talent pool has historically lacked diversity in many areas, including gender, sexuality and race. Women represent only 13% of the industry and just 1% of tradespeople.  

Meanwhile, 86.3% of professionals believe having a protected characteristic – such as a non-white background or a disability – could be a barrier to working in construction 

This is a serious problem. As well as failing to create an inclusive environment, the industry is effectively missing out on huge numbers of skilled people and even limiting its own performance, as companies with more diverse workforces have also been shown to be more profitable. 

There are a number of steps that businesses can take, from widening hiring processes to encourage a wider range of applicants to creating a more inclusive culture through training – and many recognise the need for change and are taking action. 

Three quarters of professionals (75%) say their business is prioritising hiring people from diverse backgrounds, while a quarter of businesses (26%) will put money into diversity and inclusion over the next two years. 

Shifts in construction methods can also help to accommodate a wider range of employees. For example, off-site manufacturing methods centre construction in a factory-based setting, with more predictable hours and accessible facilities – which is better for people that might have a disability or caring responsibilities. 

Focusing on wellbeing and financial security 

To create a sustainable talent pipeline, it will also be important to ensure that construction careers remain attractive over the longer term, through a greater focus on employee wellbeing. Right now, 22% of professionals say a major cause of talent shortages are poor working conditions in the industry. 

The sector has one of the highest rates of psychosocial health problems, including fatigue and burnout, while 75% of construction professionals think worker fatigue is a problem in the industry. Safety is also a problem; in total, injuries and ill-health are estimated to cost over £16.2bn a year.  

Many employees are also concerned about the financial security of construction roles. Looking to the next five to ten years, a third of professionals (35%) believe a major issue will be the cost of living diverting people to other sectors – rising to 44% in London. 

These are clearly complex issues that will need to be tackled over the long term. However, the shift to digital construction can help. From a safety perspective, tools like digital checklists, virtual tours of sites and data analysis of past incidents can all help to reduce the risks on-site. At the same time, prefabrication has been shown to be significantly safer than traditional construction methods. 

From a financial perspective, as set out in the government’s Construction Playbook, the greater use of technology can help firms to deliver builds that are higher quality, more predictable and ultimately more profitable – all of which will support sustainable salaries.   

Investing in employees will deliver long-term returns for companies, in employees’ retention and commitment. Better conditions will also help to attract the talent the sector needs.  

The workforce of the future 

Construction companies are facing many changes right now. But after many years of talent challenges, this transformative period could be the perfect opportunity to reimagine exactly what we need from the workforce – and implement the policies to make it happen. 

Addressing the industry’s image problems, attracting new kinds of candidates and prioritising workers’ wellbeing will take action at both a company and an industry level.  

But it will be worthwhile to ensure we have people with the skills, diversity of thought and motivation to support the evolution of the UK’s construction industry.  

For more insight download the full report, UK construction in 2022: Addressing talent challenges for the future workforce

Aisling Purcell

Regional Content Manager at Autodesk Construction Solutions

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