Skills shortages in the construction industry are not yet at crisis level, but current growth trends could bring that about. BARRY MCCALL writes about solutions industry leaders and influencers are championing to attract talent to the sector.
The strong recovery of construction employment has been welcomed, but it will bring challenges when it comes to recruiting talent in the coming years.
Alan McGrath, Director of Strategy, Research and Evaluation, SOLAS, says employment in the industry grew by 50% between 2012 and 2017.
“This makes sense when you think about the absolute collapse in construction between 2008 and 2011. The industry was coming from a very low base. There were 145,000 employed in the industry in the fourth quarter of 2018. That’s not back at boom levels, but I’m not sure we want to go there. We need balance in the workforce.”
The SOLAS Skills and Labour Market Research Unit identifies skills shortages in a range of areas, including the construction sector.
“Our last National Skills Bulletin was published in 2018 with data from 2017,” Alan McGrath continues. “Analysis of this data indicated shortages across a range of roles, including civil engineers, project managers, quantity surveyors and tradespeople such as carpenters, block layers, scaffolders, pipe layers, and steel erectors.”
That brings up the question of how the industry can attract more people.
“The number one thing is that there must be good job opportunities in construction,” he continues. “The number one issue for any sector is being able to see that there are viable job opportunities. There are a huge variety of roles and lots of different opportunities, and that’s something that should make the industry attractive.”
No Quick Fixes
There are no quick fixes, according to Steven Purcell, Client Development Manager, Irish Management Institute (IMI).
“Construction output in Ireland is forecast to be in excess €20bn in 2019, and while initiatives to boost apprenticeships and those choosing third-level based careers in design, engineering and construction are growing, these will take some years to bear results,” he points out. “Digitisation, technological advancements and sustainability are key drivers of this accelerated pace of change in construction services, and it is the responsibility of incumbent leaders to learn how to shift these factors in their favour.”
“Training and education at apprenticeship and third level, rising to excellence in leadership development is the key to capturing and harnessing the opportunities and managing the challenges from disruption in the market. Construction and engineering organisations need to show that they can innovate successfully and manage their strategic growth opportunities in what the IMI calls this ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.”
Lack of Knowledge About Opportunities
The attitudes of potential recruits are also critically important, according to Dermot Carey, Director, Safety and Training, CIF.
“We commissioned research into the attitudes of young people to the industry,” he explains. “There is a huge lack of knowledge out there in terms of the broad range of opportunities on offer. The industry is perceived as low tech and not higher value. And there is no real knowledge about the level of innovation in the industry.”
Interestingly, presumptions about negative attitudes of parents towards the industry were not borne out.
“The indications are that parents are open to their children going into the industry,” says Dermot Carey. “That was a pleasant surprise. I thought they would be more closed to it. It’s still fairly obvious that we need to do more to sell the industry and highlight the opportunities it presents and better explain what it does. Other industries are doing it, and the situation won’t change if we don’t.”
At least part of the answer lies in the schools.
“What came out of the research was the need for more companies to go into the schools at senior level and engage with the students,” Dermot Carey continues. “We need to connect with teachers and with students to attract them both to professions and trades in the industry. People are not aware that design, sustainability and energy efficiency are at the heart of the industry. It’s not just laying bricks. Also, there is no obvious career pathway for young people, and we need to address that.”
The situation is made all the more pressing as a result of competition from other areas of the economy.
“Despite the growth in the industry and the launch of the National Development Plan the numbers are still not there,” he notes. “I would have thought with the industry growth over the past few years that young people would automatically gravitate towards it, but that hasn’t been the case. Competition from other sectors, like ICT, is taking a lot of talent. On the other hand, teachers realise there is a big cohort of students who will never be computer programmers but are very productive people. We need to point them in the right direction.”
Making A Difference
There is also a change in outlook on the part of the new generation of workers.
“Young people today want to be able to make a difference and influence things for the better,” Dermot Carey points out. “They want careers with impact. We are not doing enough to sell construction as a creative industry. We need to highlight the great buildings created and the things made possible by the industry. We have been doing careers days in schools and so on and we need to do more of that. We haven’t been as strategic as we could have been.”
Pat Lucey, President, CIF, and Managing Director, Civils Ireland, John Sisk and Son, agrees.
“We have been looking at it for some time,” he says. “The survey on behaviours and attitudes towards construction told us that we need to do more to be better understood. Quite a few members of the new generation want to make a difference to the world in their careers. We can see that in their activities in relation to climate change. What we do in construction does make a positive difference to climate change, but we’ve got to get that message across. There is so much scope in construction to address it and help create a circular economy by reducing emissions and creating more efficient buildings, among other things.”
Pat Lucey contends that the technology utilised in the sector also needs to be highlighted.
“There is a cohort of young people skilled in digital technology who aren’t aware of its use in the industry. Construction has been using digital CAD technologies for years and is now adopting BIM, but when young people think of construction, they tend to think about mucky boots. They don’t think of ways they can use their digital skills to make a difference. I think we can sell ourselves better. We are not very public about what we do, maybe we’re just a ‘matter of fact’ bunch of people, but we’ve got to get more creative about getting our messages across.”
Increasing Awareness of Career Opportunities
Increasing awareness of the industry and the career opportunities it offers is of critical importance, according to Joanne Cluxton, HR Manager, Mercury.
“Attracting school-leavers into the industry is very important,” she says. “We need to attract talented people into the industry and show them the vast number of available career opportunities. We also need to facilitate greater awareness of career progression paths and opportunities for parents and career guidance teachers to see.”
She believes this needs to happen very early on.
“You have to go right down to primary school level. When children come out of primary school, they are choosing secondary school subjects, and that choice has a big influence on their careers. Awareness of the industry is critical at that stage.”
At a later stage, students need to be made more aware of the career progression opportunities offered by the industry.
“Many of the senior leaders in Mercury came through an apprenticeship,” Joanne Cluxton points out. “We have various paths for employees to progress along into leadership positions. Some of these paths include apprenticeships, our internal apprentice scholarship, our graduate programme, traineeships and various management and leadership training programmes. Hopefully, with these progression paths, we will encourage more people into the industry.”
Women in Construction
Joanne Cluxton says that Mercury is continually trying to attract more females into the industry. “There are now, more than ever, an immense number of varied roles and opportunities for anyone interested in a career in construction,” she explains. “Mercury will continue to drive awareness of career opportunities, including bringing career fairs to girls’ schools. One area we looked at in early 2019 was to run a free Safe Pass training courses for female school or college leavers. Some of our female employees have progressed from apprenticeship or graduate level into more senior roles. We are also looking at ways to encourage women who have taken career breaks to focus on their family back into the workplace.
Steven Purcell agrees.
“Diversity is crucial, both in terms of attracting new talent into the construction and engineering sector and developing existing pools of talent,” he says. “Women face a unique set of challenges when progressing into senior leadership positions. From unconscious bias and a scarcity of role models to a peer group that shrinks the more senior they become, women must rise to challenges that are not encountered by most men.”
He points to three ways to increase diversity and overcome these factors.
“Mentoring can help accelerate progression; women encouraging each other can enable a cultural shift. Career coaches can also help people overcome personal inhibitors, such as confidence and self-awareness. Also, internal sponsors can be an effective way of accelerating high potential employees within an organisation.”
Lorraine Brady, Design Manager, BAM Ireland, has carried out some research of her own into this area. She has talked to guidance counsellors and school students and found a need to create an altered image for the industry.
“Role models are important, but more is needed,” she says. “One of the major influencers on second-level subject choices and careers is parents and guidance counsellors. We need to change perceptions amongst these influencers about what a career in construction entails.”
She cites UK research on this topic, saying that 52% of young people have never given a career in construction any consideration. “Boys are more likely than girls to receive advice on construction careers and apprenticeships. Only 17% of youngsters feel they receive high-quality, wide-ranging careers advice at school, with 38% stating that advice was non-existent or not useful, and 9% of parents saying they would actively discourage their child from pursuing a career in construction.
“We have to educate those that influence young people on the wide range of careers and the opportunities that are available in the construction industry.”
During a school presentation, Lorraine Brady asked a group of young teenagers what they thought of the industry.
“They said it is ‘muddy’, ‘wet’, and ‘about hammering nails’,” she says.
“Of course, this is one small element of construction,” she continues. “I asked the children what they thought I do, and they said I was a nurse or a teacher; then I told them I work for a builder, and they looked surprised.
Sharing The Wider Reality
“There are many other sides to the industry. And, as an industry, we need to share the wider reality of our roles with all.”
Lorraine Brady surmises that there are a lot of excellent promotional programmes out there aimed at changing this perception, and BAM is involved in a number of them.
“The STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) programme involves people from industry going into primary schools for 10 weeks and explaining what they do through class activities. They teach children about engineering in a fun and engaging way.
“We are giving them the opportunity to learn about engineering in the classroom with experts from the industry. At the end of the programme, we ask the children ‘who wants to work in construction’, and it’s fantastic to see those who are keen to progress this option further.”
She says the gender issue is critically important and needs to be kept high on the agenda.
“Girls are not encouraged to take construction-related subjects at second level,” she continues. “At 13, they don’t know what to choose. To be able to attract talented people, we need to change the perceptions of a whole suite of influencers. We also have to remember that 50% of the potential workforce is women. But women still do the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to family responsibility. Nursing and teaching are very flexible careers, and the construction industry is not at present. Until men see an impact on their career progression from taking time out or reduced time for family commitments, the industry will be slow to change. It’s the elephant in the room we are not discussing.
“How do we fix it that both sexes do their fair share?” Lorraine Brady asks. “This is not just a matter for employers – it will take Government policy to drive change. We will probably have to think about enforcing parental leave for both sexes. A big societal shift is needed to bring more balance, particularly in construction, where there are such demanding hours.
“A guidance counsellor told me recently that many 17-year-old female leaving certificate students are asking her about family-friendly career options. Are the boys asking those questions too? Both sexes should see only future opportunities, not limitations.
New Pools of Talent
Nellie Reid, Managing Director, Meehan Green, is a member of the Women in Property and Construction Ireland organisation.
“We have to start early in schools to get more young girls thinking about the industry,” Nellie Reid says. “I was at an industry awards event earlier in the year, and up on stage, there were only two women and about 30 men. That shows there is still a major imbalance in the industry’s leadership.”
Looking at the broader issue and more immediate solutions, she says the industry must look at a wider pool of talent.
“We have to think of Ireland as part of the EU and look at the pool of applicants there,” she says. “When we post a job on LinkedIn, we get applications from throughout the EU. Social media has really changed the game. We also need to look at what’s going on in the universities. These are the next generation of leaders, and we need stronger engagement while they are in college. Organisations like the CIF, RIAI and Engineers Ireland need to work strongly together on this,” Nellie Reid comments.
In closing, Dermot Carey sums up the challenge facing the industry. “We are going to require imaginative solutions,” he says. “The structure of the industry won’t change. But we have to create an environment that makes it attractive to people.”