As a driver of growth and provider of vital infrastructure, the construction sector is rightly recognised by policy makers as key to the UK’s economic success.
But as the industry emerges from its most recent downturn it faces long-standing difficulties that could impede its recovery, including skills shortages, lack of diversity and short-termism.
Addressing these issues was on the agenda as parliamentarians and industry experts gathered earlier this week at a Chartered Institute of Building event in the House of Commons.
The CIOB is the world's largest and most influential professional body for construction management and leadership and has been promoting the science and practice of building and construction for the benefit of society since 1834.
Sponsoring the event was newly elected MP Jo Churchill, who praised the CIOB’s role in promoting and supporting major UK construction projects.
She said: “Any project is only as good as the management and the leadership and that is why the CIOB is so important in the work that it does upskilling people and allowing people to share information and best practice.”
Ms Churchill also stressed the need to mitigate the effects of boom and bust on the sector.
“We need certainty if we are to trade,” she said, “and within that certainty we need confidence as well. The legacy of boom and bust takes about five to six years to come out within the cycle and we have an ageing workforce. So, we have challenges.”
Skills Minister Nick Boles, who also spoke at the event, echoed these concerns on the cyclical nature of the sector, but added that he hoped it was apparent “that Government is trying hard to make its support for the construction industry very clear.”
Commitments to major infrastructure projects, he added, meant that “for once the industry can actually look ahead with some confidence that flows of business and contracts will keep coming through and therefore that you can make decisions on that basis.”
Raising the issue of diversity within construction, Shadow Business Minister, Angela Eagle, urged firms, professional bodies and policymakers “not to be complacent.”
She said: “If we are going to use the talents of all our people we need to be a lot better at making certain that women enter our industries in greater numbers and can be successful in them and break down some of those gender stereotypes. Cross-party you’ll find that we are all interested in how best we can do that.”
Ms Eagle also expressed concern over the sector’s “skills emergency.”
“We have to ensure that as we approach an era of massive rebuilding of infrastructure - be it domestic houses, new communities or indeed bigger infrastructure and some of the services that go with rebuilding communities - we want UK industry to ensure that it gets the lion’s share of contracts so it can benefit most our own local communities.
“It also means we can create and reskill an entirely new generation of craftspeople, builders, experts, project managers, those that manage complex building arrangements and companies. We can absorb a lot of the economic benefits that come from this into our own communities,” she said.
Explaining the importance of apprenticeships in tackling the skills shortage, Nick Boles, said he understood why some firms still had reservations over the scheme as it required a long-term investment, but stressed that the Government was trying to address this through new initiatives such as the apprenticeship levy.
He also went on to acknowledge the role being played by the CIOB and other professional bodies in engendering confidence in this area by helping to “create new modern apprenticeship standards.”
“I think is important so that employers in the industry can see that they have an apprenticeship standard that is relevant to the work that they do,” he said.
Building on this point, Paul Nash, CIOB’s Vice President, pointed to a recent report by the organisation,
Understanding the Value of Professionals and Professional Bodies
The work highlighted the contribution professional bodies can make in informing Government, as well as boosting productivity, improving social mobility and bolstering the construction industry’s reputation at home and abroad through setting high standards.
Mr Nash concluded: “With the emphasis the Government has placed on building dialogue with the industry, professional bodies are uniquely placed to provide independent, objective and informed advice. We are here to help.”