Time for a new approach to skills

Published:  06 May, 2015

Built Environment Hub, skills shortage, training, NVQ, apprenticeships, apprentices
Rethinking skills for the construction industry — Mark Wakeford.

The economic cycle that plagues the construction industry inevitably leads to skills shortages. But should it? Mark Wakeford shares his thoughts on behalf of the Built Environment Hub.

Here we go again! The construction industry picks up after a recession, we are short of skills, and everyone is surprised! Quite rightly the industry is responding in the time-honoured way of encouraging more people into the industry at apprentice, graduate and mature entry points.

However, it all sounds rather repetitive. Our industry has been here before, and we are rolling out the same response — which many cynics would say allows us to train the next cohort in time for the next recession.

Given the huge improvements in communications, the obvious needs to upskill everyone within the industry to meet new challenges and opportunities for clients to procure in ways that deliver better value, shouldn't our industry be looking to tackle the skills crisis in different, more imaginative ways?

So what to do?

There are three discrete areas where companies in the construction industry must concentrate their efforts.

• Tackling the structural causes of skills shortages

• Treating the symptoms of a lack of skills

• Making better use of the skills that we have within the industry through a massive improvement in productivity

This last area could have a significant impact on reducing the shortages and also help support solutions to the structural causes of shortages.

Priority one — beating the causes of the skills shortages

There is a variety of reasons put forward for the shortage of managerial and trade skills.

• Failure to attract the people we need

• Poor image of our industry, making it a non-aspirational career

• Poor careers advice from careers teachers and other reasons for poor recruitment levels after education

• Poor levels of diversity

• Construction’s boom /bust/boom business cycle

• Avoiding training for the next recession

The commercial model of most construction organisations relies on people as their only asset, who are expendable in tough times.

Many companies adopt short-term horizons and accept the churn endemic in the industry. This makes investing in people a difficult choice.

The failure to attract new recruits to our industry is well documented, and there are many worthy initiatives run by the CITB and professional organisations that seek to address this imbalance. The latest where Peter Hansford is encouraging organisations to adopt a school (or a careers advisor) makes good commercial sense for organisations seeking to recruit from their local communities. Those thinking further forward will include primary schools.

Additionally, the industry attempts to redress the lack of diversity are to be applauded. Construction has become complicated enough as to need different skills and approaches that diversity can support. These initiatives are excellent in addressing many of the causes of skills shortages at an early stage, and commercially astute organisations of all sizes and persuasions are contributing to these efforts in an attempt to secure their workers for the future.

Construction's boom-and-bust cycle is a far more intractable issue, and I doubt that our industry can single-handedly create a steady demand for new works. There are, however, many things that we could do to mitigate this corrosive cycle in which we operate. Organisations need to learn to retain assets within their organisations so that they can diversify during the tougher times.

I know that on a small scale my company Stepnell used to enjoy a number of measured-term contracts that could absorb employees during quiet times, but which could provide additional resources when the industry started to overheat. To do this we had to have managers who could adapt to different procurement regimes and operatives who were multi-skilled and versatile. The current trend to have highly focused managers and operatives who can undertake single operations very effectively puts their organisations at a disadvantage when this work dries up.

It is far better to have organisations with a variety of work streams (and an asset base to see them through the bad times) employing multi-skilled staff who can adapt to a variety of work during their working lives. This would be a responsible response to a cyclical industry.

Priority two — tackling the symptoms of our skills shortages

There is a huge number of initiatives in hand to increase the number of apprentices and trainee managers within the industry. Some companies are choosing to tackle uncustomary sources of new recruits, which is innovative — and I wish them every success. We are seeing significantly more women and ethnic minorities being targeted to join our industry, recognising the value that they bring to diverse construction teams.

A welcome change is the unrelenting march of apprenticeships and the increasing breadth of recognition within our industry. Apprenticeships as a route to professional qualifications now demonstrate that NVQs have matured and are of a reliable standard that really does match traditional academic qualifications. Creating these alternative routes is a great way of broadening out the appeal of construction to those who may not have considered us as a career.

Businesses looking to secure their workforce and that of their supply chain are recruiting and also pressurising their supply chain to do likewise. The easiest way to achieve this is to recruit apprentices and/or trainees. Businesses who can look longer term recognise that a steady-state position would have 8% of their employees as trainees or apprentices — given that an average apprentice or training programme might be four years and an average working career may be 50 years. This is a steady state. Those planning to grow will clearly need a higher percentage!

Other initiatives are aimed at upskilling those currently employed. The recurring issue when people are busy is finding the time and the resources to invest in training, both new entrants and existing staff. However, many organisations recognise that in times of great change, it is more important to train than ever, and it is great to see the amount and breadth of training that is happening within the industry.

Priority three — mitigating the skills shortages through improving productivity

The third action must be to mitigate the shortages as best as we are able. In this crusade there are two principal targets.

The first is off-site construction, which is much heralded and provides significant advantages in discrete areas. Clearly if the economies of scale are to work, we will need a significantly higher level of standardisation of common building elements so that we can garner the efficiencies promised within a factory environment.

The second target is far more powerful. We must train our managers to increase productivity, which has remained stubbornly low. The construction industry has seen many improvements that could improve productivity, but, like our industry, these have been fragmented and rarely brought together. However, there is a growing number of tools in which managers can be trained which can significantly improve productivity. From an industry perspective, a few percentage-point improvements would reduce the skills gap significantly. From a business perspective a few percentage-point improvements would improve quality and add profit to the bottom line through lower prelims. The tools fall into two discrete areas — communication tools and soft skills

The ability to communicate large volumes of information with a large number of people has been available to the industry for many years. The recent change has been in the ability to communicate the relevant information to those who need to know and avoid burying our staff in gigabytes of information. Clearly BIM (building information modelling) contributes to this capability, and there is growing evidence that projects using this technology have higher levels of collaboration and that the teams can reduce the time taken to design projects. This clearly helps productivity prior to reaching site, and there is anecdotal evidence that this is being reciprocated on sites.

Soft skills aim to give our managers the skills to drive productivity. Within Stepnell we have found it necessary to start with some self-awareness of our strengths and weaknesses to be able to demonstrate that none of us can be all things to all people in all situations. This realisation has been invaluable in then coaching communication skills and the ability to manage diverse teams. The next stage is training in lean techniques, which aim to help our managers identify and reduce waste throughout the construction process. The first tool for most of our managers is collaborative programming, which is a great tool for securing resources from throughout the supply chain and ensuring that they work productively.

Real gains in productivity come when both enhanced communication tools and lean practices are used together. This allows designers to complete the design before site activities start and for site teams to plan around a certain requirement. Interestingly, there is a view that the ultimate client has to be involved in both these initiatives. This is not true; indeed evidence for BIM shows that 60% of the reasons for adopting BIM are for teams to become more collaborative and improve efficiencies. Only 40% of the rationale starts with the customer.

From an industry perspective training management teams in lean practices, particularly when done with self-awareness, allows a single training package that can alleviate the skills shortage for all skills used on that site. This must represent a good use of limited training funds.

There is an opportunity to tackle our skill shortage in a new way that will help prevent a future crisis. I suspect that if we tackle the shortage as we always have then we will have the same problem at the next recession. There is a great opportunity with the advances in collaborative tools to train our managers in lean techniques that will reduce the skills deficit and prepare managers for a variety of new business situations as the economy rises and falls.

Mark Wakeford is on the board of directors of the Built Environment Hub and managing director of Stepnell.



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