How one UK company is taking on the skilled-labor shortage in construction

To address the growing skilled-labor shortage in construction, one UK company is proactively changing public perception to draw new talent.

skilled labor shortage in construction

Elizabeth Rosselle

March 14, 2019

min read
skilled labor shortage in construction kier educational outreach
Kier performs educational outreach on the jobsite. Image courtesy of Kier.

England needs to build a staggering four million homes in order to mitigate its housing crisis. But who will build them? As the UK’s housing shortfall reaches an all-time high, the country is facing an overwhelming skilled-labor shortage in construction. The industry is losing approximately 140,000 workers yearly; it needs roughly 400,000 new recruits annually to see any real relief. Brexit could exacerbate the shortage by limiting EU workers; meanwhile, the UK’s baby boomers are retiring and many millennials have no interest in joining the industry.

Construction is facing an image crisis that’s making it difficult to attract new talent. In response, Kier Group, the UK’s second-largest construction company, issued a research report about the image and recruitment crisis, stating its mission in no uncertain terms: “Modernise or Die.” Kier wants to change outdated perceptions of construction jobs and promote elements of the work that appeal to younger generations, such as advanced technologies.

One way Kier hopes to bridge the labor gap is through its Shaping Your World campaign, which includes pledging one percent of its workforce to act as ambassadors at schools, colleges, and universities to speak with students about career opportunities, highlighting the ways construction has evolved. The company’s apprenticeship program, which is open to anyone age 16 and older, aligns with a UK government initiative to fund an additional three million apprenticeships by 2020.

These programs give students opportunities to learn from experts, but learning is a two-way street, as working with the digitally savvy younger generation helps veteran architects and engineers stay open to new methodologies. “Training videos and communication pieces are certainly landing,” says Richard Davis, the Kier Group’s director of regional building. “Plus, you’re actually seeing these guys reverse-mentor the old-timers like me by using Facebook and YouTube to show ways of utilizing the tools more effectively. So, I think we’re in a revolution.”

Kier apprentice Alex Plenty says shifting to new processes such as BIM can be easier for newcomers than for veterans who have spent their careers working a different way: “I think it’s good that we get people in the industry who haven’t been there a long time who can look at things fresh—not just some who are quite young coming into it, but there are people being redeployed.” He adds that the new generation is more open to the idea of moving between jobs. “A job for life is not something that exists anymore, so we’ve got to look at young people coming in and also people who are redeploying,” he says. “So we’re looking at skills rather than qualifications.”

Three people in construction hats use power tools
Demonstrating traditional job skills. Image courtesy of Kier.

Kier’s outreach doesn’t end in the classroom: The company installed scannable Virtual World Plaques at flagship project sites that let the public access site history, case studies, job information, and project stories with their smartphones. Virtual World Plaques log 10,000 unique visits every month; a companion Virtual Interactive Built Environment (VIBE) website offers a downloadable career guide for the construction-curious.

The lure of cool new tech

Two workers in construction hats look at notes
A student in Kier’s apprentice program. Image courtesy of Kier.

The construction industry increasingly relies on new technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, drones, and artificial intelligence. Yet according to research from the City & Guilds Group, 54 percent of construction companies are impacted by skills shortages; falling behind on technology translates to lower productivity and profits. While keeping up with these advances has at times been challenging for industry veterans, tech is helping change both industry culture and tired stereotypes.

“The thing with the technology that’s coming in is that it attracts a completely new type of person entering the construction industry,” says Sam Dawson, a digital-construction-engineer apprentice at Kier Group. “You can have someone who’s completely interested in technology, coding, and other things who then realizes, ‘Oh, I can apply that to a construction environment.’ That straightaway grabs their attention and moves them toward construction.”

Advanced technologies like robots and 3D-modeling capabilities have a great “wow” factor, but they’re also making many established jobs easier—Kier reskills employees through apprenticeships, internships, and management programs—and opening up new career possibilities within the industry.

Welcoming women to the industry

skilled labor shortage in construction kier diverse culture
Kier wants to cultivate a work culture that appeals to women. Image courtesy of Kier.

All job sectors aim to evolve corporate cultures, making more room for diversity. For construction, women could be the untapped resource that solves the labor shortage. In the UK, women make up just 12 percent of the workforce in construction, an industry that Kier’s research shows can still be misperceived as “manual” or “nonacademic.”

“We’ve got to make it attractive for women,” Davis says. “As a whole, our company is sitting at about 17 percent women. But if we focus on our younger workers, that number is much bigger. These guys have been working alongside a lot more women. We’ve made it safer, we’ve made it cleaner, and we’ve improved the culture to be a more attractive place for women to work.”

Kier Group launched initiatives to promote greater gender equality within the industry, including a Gender Strategy Group. “Our Gender Strategy Group is composed of senior leaders and will aim to raise the profile, awareness, and understanding of the business drivers for greater gender diversity,” says Rebecca Heptinstall, Kier Group’s HR early careers project manager. “The BBN was initially started by people at Kier to look at leveling the playing field for women across our business, especially those in the frontline technical roles. We wanted to understand the challenges faced by women as being one of few in their functions and to take steps to make Kier more inclusive.”

For houses to exist, there needs to be an industry of designers, engineers, and builders to design, engineer, and build them. And the industry needs people. Proactive initiatives like the Kier Group’s one-percent pledge can heighten awareness about the root causes of these issues and work toward solving them. If leaders in the field follow suit by reaching out to schools and communities, these efforts could bridge the gap and attract more young, skilled laborers into construction.

Yes, construction may involve heavy lifting and physical labor. But there are so many opportunities to work on the engineering and design side of things—working with BIM technology to help build the infrastructure so desperately needed. The industry is diversifying; technology is changing the face of construction, and with help from industry leaders, these changes are being brought into the light.

Elizabeth Rosselle

About Elizabeth Rosselle

Elizabeth Rosselle is a freelance journalist, copywriter, and designer who splits her time between San Francisco and Bali, Indonesia.

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