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Bridging the construction skills gap with ex-military personnel

Chartered Institute of Building

5 min read Partner content

An industry-led initiative promising to plug the construction skills gap by utilising the valuable skills of ex-military personnel was highlighted in parliament this week by the Chartered Institute of Building.

It has now become fully accepted that there is a skills shortage in the construction sector.

Demand for housing and infrastructure is booming, and ambitious targets have been set for the end of the parliament, which if met would bring immeasurable social and economic benefits. Yet the industry needs another 230,000 new recruits to do so.

However, there is a bold new initiative, BuildForce - ‘so simple that you wonder why no one ever thought of it before’ - that is primed to simultaneously plug this skills gap while giving meaningful careers to thousands of ex-military personnel.

“This sounds like a brilliant new initiative to ensure that there’s a pathway into the construction industry from the armed forces,” said Conservative MP Julian Lewis at the Chartered Institute of Building event on Wednesday evening.

20,000 veterans leave the armed forces each year, many of whom will be faced with the daunting prospect of finding work “on the outside.”

BuildForce links these veterans with the wealth of opportunities in construction - to show them just how transferable their skills can be, and that the construction sector is actually crying out for them.

“It’s enabling the investment that’s been made in developing the character and the skills of people in the service of their country, to be able to do the same thing in the service of industry,” Lewis added.

In many ways the construction sector is a natural fit for men and women coming out of the armed forces, where they can adapt the skills they developed while serving. Equally, ex-military personnel present construction firms with precisely what they are lacking: a steady influx of can-do leaders, many with years of formal training, “who will get the job done.”

“I wish I had something like this in my day,” said ex-serviceman, Jordan Toy, who now works as construction manager for Landlease.

Toy left the armed forces in 2013, and for lack of any better ideas, went into management consultancy. After 18-months of staring into a spreadsheets he decided it wasn’t for him and was “lucky enough” to find his way into construction.

“Construction management is 25% construction and 75% management,” Toy said. “It’s not rocket science, it’s about managing up and managing down.”

“Ex-personnel can really add value to this industry,” he went on. “They have that ability to receive instructions, to think, to make decisions, to communicate that clearly and get something done.

“If you can give them that belief that they do have the skills and the ability to succeed in the private sector, they’re going to knock your socks off.”

While the industry is adamant that veterans have precisely the skill sets they are looking for, 68% of ex-military personnel doubted their skills were transferable.

Part of the BuildForce project is to raise awareness of the skills the sector is looking for among veterans; to offer them work-shadowing opportunities and trial periods, with no initial commitment attached.

Chris Sexton, technical director of Crossrail who spent most of his life as a Royal Engineer, explained that while previous attempts had been made to link veterans with employers, unlike BuildForce these had failed to reduce both bureaucracy and risk.

“They did not address the anxiety companies have about dipping their toes into the water, because they’re not sure what they're going to get,” he said. “The spirit is willing but the flesh all too often is weak.”

“And secondly, the MoD I’m afraid hasn't changed since I was in it, and can be a nightmare to deal with.”

It fails to realise that in civilian life the hiring of personnel is done by busy line managers, he explained, “who simply don't have the time to go through a bureaucratic process to take people on board.”

“This is why I’m absolutely confident that BuildForce will succeed,” he added. “It’s a very simple process of getting service leaders to come and have a trial period, with no risk on either side if it doesn't work out.”

“And when employers see what service leavers can do they'll hire them. It’s such a good idea and so simple you wonder why no one thought of it before.”

For those veterans who ultimately chose a career in construction, BuildForce is there to support them through the transition, and obtain the formally recognised private sector qualifications.

From a more macro perspective, the Chartered Institute of Building’s incoming president Paul Nash, explained how the beauty of BuildForce is that it has the potential to soothe a range of economic and social factors simultaneously, with relatively little resource.

“It’s very important in the context of the wider issue we’ve got around skills in the industry; we’ve got a significant quota to fill if we’re going to meet our targets,” Nash said.

“But it also links in to the debate in productivity, and how we’re going to improve our productivity in this country.”

“And as a professional body incorporated by a Royal Charter, it plays to our mandate to act in the wider public interest. So I’m very encouraged by this initiative and I fully support it."

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