Time for Change. How can we address labour and skills shortages in the Midlands?

Chaired by Simon Marks, City Executive for Birmingham, a select number of industry peers from across the Midland’s joined us for an exclusive debate on the extent of the UK’s skills crisis. The lively discussion saw guests sharing their perspectives on how we can address the issue of labour shortages and meet construction needs over the next ten years.

The Scale of the Problem

We need to recruit 400,000 new workers every year between now and 2021 to create the homes and infrastructure the nation needs. This equates to as much as one worker every 77 seconds.  Crucially, this figure is independent of the impact of any Brexit deal, which is likely to further increase the strain. 

Challenging Diversity

Louise Brooke-Smith, Partner at Arcadis and previously Global President of RICS, took the angle of diversity and inclusion (D&I) and how important this is in addressing the skills gap. She believes that the most effective way to fill the shortage is to be far more open to a more inclusive employment base – it’s about widening the gate for people coming into built environment professions, not just in the construction industry but across the board. We need to be more accepting and realistic about “fishing in a bigger pool.”

We also all have a responsibility to keep “banging the D&I agenda” and ensure we gauge people’s responses to it. Louise was keen to stress that once D&I is embedded, we won’t need to talk about it. However, until then we need genuine buy-in and support from leaders. It underlies everything else and therefore we need to take D&I far more seriously. On a positive note, Louise was quick to point out that we are catching up with the legal and accountancy professions and things are starting to change quicker than ever before. Firms have a vested interest to buy into this and are motivated around the bottom line; a diverse workforce ultimately means more profit. 

The Regional Microscope

Andrew Cleaves, Chief Executive and Principal at Birmingham Metropolitan Council, stated that “if it is a challenge in the UK, it is magnified in the West Midlands.” In the region, there is a higher proportion of people with no/low skills. As many as one in six have no skillset and the level of unemployment in Greater Birmingham sits at 36,000 people; well above the national average. 

On the other hand, Birmingham boasts one of the most productive and mixed economies in the country. Yet with 20,000 businesses launching in 2015 alone, there is still a high failure rate with new ventures. Transformation is required; businesses need to stop looking at policy and instead embrace technical skills. For years, learning a trade has been seen as a ‘poor relation’ to getting a qualification and as a result we have sleep-walked into this problem. Society’s view is that people should go to university in order to succeed but everyone in the room agreed that we have a responsibility to change the prevailing culture whereby someone with a first-class honours degree is perceived to be exponentially better than someone who has no qualifications, but is interested and inspired to be a hard-working apprentice, learning the ropes from the bottom, up. People need to realistically look at where their skills lie and use them accordingly.

Workers are available but discrimination prevents many people from being brought into the industry. Some students will not pass recruitment tests because of their background, but they could be the next engineer or construction agent and the industry is missing out as a result. Blind testing needs to become far more prominent.


Making a Difference

Mike Reade, Director at Balfour Beatty, asked what single thing we can do to make a difference. He said: “We are in a fragmented industry where we are all doing good things, but not together. We all stand to gain or lose at the same time and therefore a more cooperative approach across geographies is required to benefit everyone locally.”  

It became clear that while we have the chance to modernise the industry, we need to improve visibility of opportunities in order to address the challenge. We need to understand the demand gap – we don’t know how many people there are in training, for example. We may know the number of qualifications, but we don’t know what people are going on to do with them.

Funding is a problem. State of the art colleges are set up with a good curriculum, well-qualified academics and modern equipment, but they can’t get the funding to run properly. This ultimately compromises the level of experience at the end of the course. This situation could be further exacerbated after Brexit – where will the funds go? 

Active, assertive marketing of our industry is required so that the younger generations understand construction is an exciting industry to work in. Targeting A-Level age groups is too late – advice needs to be imparted in primary school so excitement and knowledge around STEM subjects is built up earlier and students know how to utilise these skills effectively later on. We need a structured approach to building relationships between businesses and schools.


What next? 

There is a danger of doing all of the right things but without an overarching strategy. Currently, we are throwing pebbles in the pond but we need to have a cohesive plan which encompasses the whole industry in both the short and long term. However, with the mayoral elections, combined authorities and devolution, there is hope that if we all come together, identify the gaps and target our efforts accordingly, we will eventually start to see some measurable results. 

Simon Marks

City Executive Birmingham Ask me a question
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