Leaders in the construction industry are facing a perfect storm when it comes to recruitment. There is a skills shortage in construction which been a long time coming, and we’ve always dealt with it to some extent. But now the exacerbating factors of Brexit and Covid mean that we must urgently consider how we can creatively alleviate it for good.

We can’t continually plug short-term gaps with temporary contracts and workers brought in via agencies, nor is that how most of us would choose to run a company. Lots of us use agencies for support, and they do have their place, but you need to do your research and choose a long-term partner in recruitment, rather than going with someone who promises the earth, charges a lot, and delivers very little. After all, the best contractors have a strong culture of health and safety, customer service, and doing a job right the first time, and it’s tough to instill that when you’re constantly firefighting to make sure you’ve got enough people on the job.

The 2011 census showed that almost one-third of construction workers were 50 or over – so in 2021 we’ve just fallen off a cliff in terms of retirement. So many skills, so much institutional knowledge, is leaking out of our industry faster than we can refill the well. Consider these facts: last year the number of construction vacancies went up by a huge 213%, but the number of applications halved. We simply aren’t bringing people into the industry in the numbers we need to, and the gap seems to widen with each passing year.

So, what’s gone wrong? A lot of things, all of which are now combining to make a perfect storm. We’ve experienced two seismic shifts in Brexit and Covid, both of which have changed things about how our industry operates, either temporarily or permanently. We’ve also got longstanding perception issues to deal with; for a lot of young people construction seems to be full of older white men, and women can be especially wary of joining what looks like a boys’ club. Construction currently has a bit of an identity crisis; career progression is unclear, and digital jobs especially seem cleaner, cooler, and more in-keeping with a world that’s striving for decarbonisation.

How do we tackle these problems? Well, Brexit and Covid we’ll leave to the politicians to deal with. But we could all stand to think more creatively about how we attract people to our industry.

Apprenticeships are the lifeblood of construction

We have ramped up our commitment to apprenticeships this year, bringing in more young people than we have done for the last few years. We’re growing rapidly and we need the bodies in the short term, but we’re also thinking about the mid-long term of our business. We need to bring in young people now, give them the tools and the skills to understand how the company operates, and shape them into leaders capable of running divisions and companies in 20 years’ time. If you’re complaining about a skills shortage and you’re not committed to developing apprentices, you should take a look at the social value your company is delivering, because it’s likely not enough for the community you’re part of.

Today’s employees expect flexibility

Construction is fairly traditional in how we expect our employees to operate, probably because we don’t deal with large numbers of women, who are more likely to take maternity leave and submit flexible working requests. Seeing in the news last week that a Silicon Valley venture capitalist thinks that any man who takes paternity leave ‘is a loser’ was disappointing; any industry with a recruitment challenge needs to step into the future along with their employees.

Why are we not more flexible? We should be open to everyone with the motivation to seek us out, whether they want to work part time, undertake an adult apprenticeship, or yes, take paternity leave. The old days of 9-5 don’t really work for everyone – the pandemic has proved it – so in my opinion there’s no excuse for taking a creative look at your employees’ working patterns, and squaring that with the actual needs of your customer.

Showcase the future of construction

We know that working in construction isn’t all getting your hands dirty on building sites, but the overwhelming perception is that construction = manual labour. So, it’s our job to help others understand that digitalisation of our industry is happening right now. In the next decade manual labourers might become robot operators instead; architects will use AI and VR to update plans in real time as clients look on; renewable technologies will revolutionise not just end products but every phase of work, from design to implementation.

In a fragmented industry like ours it can be hard to picture this high-tech robotic future – so many SMEs don’t have the time, budget, or expertise to think outside the box when it comes to recruitment. After all, when you’ve got contracts, deadlines, and scheduling to deal with, what construction might look like in 2040 doesn’t feel like a pressing concern.

The problem is that if we don’t treat recruitment as an urgent problem to be addressed, we simply won’t be able to continue to operate, or at least to compete for the most profitable work. Industry leaders like me need to build promotion of the industry into our working lives; visiting schools and colleges, explaining what a career path might look like, and opening up conversations about construction to more diverse groups of people.

If we can start talking to young teens as they begin thinking about their careers, we can show them the possibilities and potential that our industry holds. It’s a hugely exciting time to be in construction, as we take on the huge challenge of decarbonising the built environment. If we are open to recruiting with the needs of the 21st century employee in mind, we can capture imaginations with the idea that construction workers will be the ones who change the world.