How Can We Solve the Construction Industry Skills Shortage in the UK?


The construction industry plays a vital role in driving economic growth and development...

Rebecca O'Rourke

By Rebecca O'Rourke

The construction industry plays a vital role in driving economic growth and development. However, it faces a significant challenge - a need for more skilled workers. This shortage threatens the stability and future of the industry unless immediate action is taken to address it.

In this blog, we’ll explore the factors contributing to this shortage, its impact on the industry, and the potential solutions to ensure the construction sector is adequately resourced for future large-scale infrastructure projects.

The Importance of the Construction Industry

The construction sector has long been a critical driver of economic growth. It encompasses various fields, including architecture, civil engineering, and construction management.

In the UK alone, the industry employs approximately 2.15 million people. Companies and specialist construction recruitment agencies are tasked with finding skilled workers in a decreasing pool of talent, to meet the growing demand. This shortage of skills poses a significant risk to the industry's recovery and future development.

The Current State of the Skills Shortage

The UK Trade Skills Index 2023 highlights the need for 937,000 new recruits in the construction and trades industry over the next decade, with Scotland alone requiring 31,000. Among these recruits, 244,000 should be qualified apprentices.

Moreover, the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic significantly impacted the construction industry. The recession expected in 2023 adds to the urgency of addressing the skills gap, as the industry needs 225,000 new workers by 2027, according to the Construction Skills Network (CSN) report. The increasing skills gap poses a threat to the UK economy, with concerns rising over output in 2023 and beyond.

Causes of the Skills Shortage

Factors such as a decline in the number of apprentices entering the construction sector, an aging workforce, and a surge in investment have all contributed to the widening skills gap.

Decline in Apprenticeships

One major contributor to the skills shortage is the decline in the number of apprentices entering the construction industry.

The Financial Times reported that in 2021 only, 713,000 people were registered as apprentices, the lowest annual total since 2010. Additionally, almost half of these didn’t complete their course.

There is a lack of interest among young people in pursuing careers in the construction industry, particularly within the UK. Research carried out by data specialist Savanta ComRes indicated that only 5% of students actively contemplate pursuing roles within the construction sector.

Aging Workforce

Another factor exacerbating the skills shortage is the aging workforce in the construction industry. The aging workforce is exacerbating this shortage, with over 35% of construction workers aged over 50.

Being an industry that is very physically demanding, it’s likely that these older and more-experienced workers will exit the industry within the next decade, with not enough fresh talent entering the industry to replace them.

Surge in Investment

While increased investment in construction projects is a positive sign for the industry, it also contributes to the skills shortage. The government's housing initiatives and infrastructure projects have resulted in a surge in demand for skilled workers.

In August 2022, the Government Construction Pipeline revealed that around £119 billion worth of projects were planned for the next five years. This increased demand for construction workers, coupled with the existing shortage of skills, further highlights the urgency of addressing the skills gap.

Consequences of the Skills Shortage

The skills shortage in the construction industry has far-reaching consequences for the economy, employment, and the successful completion of projects. There is the risk that it will hinder the industry's growth and recovery post-pandemic, but also delay the delivery of critical infrastructure projects and affordable housing programmes.

The shortage of skilled workers impacts the successful completion of construction projects. With fewer qualified professionals available, construction companies may struggle to meet project deadlines and deliver projects of the desired quality. This can lead to project delays, cost overruns, and a decrease in customer satisfaction.

The skills shortage also puts pressure on existing workers, who may be forced to work longer hours to compensate for the lack of manpower, increasing the risk of worker fatigue and compromising safety on construction sites.

Bridging the Skill Gap

Several strategies need to be implemented to bridge the skills gap and ensure the industry has a skilled workforce to meet the demand for sustainable construction practices.

Recruiting and Training Young Talent

One of the primary strategies is to focus on recruiting and training young talent, including recent school graduates and those from further education or higher education.

Closer collaboration between educational institutions and the construction industry at all levels is essential to ensure that new candidates have the necessary skills and awareness of the routes into employment. This collaboration can include apprenticeship programmes, work placements, and targeted outreach to promote the exciting opportunities available in the construction sector.

Apprenticeship programmes are a valuable tool for bringing in fresh talent and providing them with the necessary skills to succeed in the industry. The construction industry, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, should continue investing in apprenticeship programmes to develop a strong pipeline of skilled workers.

Utilising Transferable Skills

Construction companies and recruiters can attract skilled workers from other sectors within the industry or other engineering professions, redistributing existing talent to meet immediate project requirements.

There are a variety of transferable skills that bridge the engineering disciplines and can offer construction projects a wider pool of talent to choose from.

  • Hard skills: Physical strength, dexterity, hand-eye coordination, bricklaying, masonry, carpentry, framing, plumbing, electrical, drywall, roofing, sheet metal work, demolition, HVAC, inspecting, painting, repairs, measuring, installation, maintenance, power tools, renovations, surveying, ironwork, and mathematics.
  • Technical skills: Familiarity with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, Uniform Building Code (UBC) and Hazardous Materials Management (HAZMAT); Microsoft Office Suite; and training on a variety of heavy machinery.
  • Soft skills: Teamwork, collaboration, active listening, willingness to learn, problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and organisation.
  • Certifications and training: There are a wide range of certifications a number of skilled workers may have that work across disciplines, such as heavy equipment operation licenses, health and safety training or engineering qualifications.

There is also the option for retraining workers from adjacent sectors, building on the existing level of knowledge and skill they have to make them more suitable for construction-based roles.

Retaining Skilled Workers

Retaining existing skilled workers is crucial for addressing the workforce challenges. Companies should provide attractive career development paths, competitive compensation, and a supportive work environment to retain skilled employees. This includes focusing on continuous professional development and upskilling opportunities to ensure workers remain engaged and motivated.

The construction industry must address the skills crisis to increase output and ensure its future viability. By focusing on recruiting and training young talent, retaining skilled workers, and utilising wider talent pools with a similar skill set, the industry can bridge the skills gap and meet the demand for sustainable construction practices.

Expanding to a Global Search

With the demand for skilled workers as high as ever, sourcing from other countries is a lucrative solution for employers. Expatriates can possess sought-after skills that may be unavailable locally. Working with a company that can provide EOR solutions can also make this less daunting for companies in need of talent quickly. 

How We Can Help with your Workforce Needs

The demand for skilled engineers working in construction is as high as ever. Companies require skilled talent to research, design and construct the future of the industry.

NES Fircroft’s expert recruitment teams have offices in over 45 countries with cultivated talent pools. Our sector-specific teams can source engineering and technical professionals for global roles with some of the biggest names in construction, infrastructure, and engineering.

With decades of experience in international expansion, we can also help you to hire employees from across the globe quickly, compliantly and with minimal risk.

Contact us to discuss how we can support your workforce needs.