Graham Hasting-Evans, Group Managing Director of NOCN and President of British Association of Construction Heads

Infrastructure Investment and Skills

The construction industry is 7% of GCP and will employ 2.79 million people by 2023.

It builds and maintains all our homes (some 25 million in the UK) as well as the infrastructure we all take for granted and which supports the day to day running of our economy and society.

This includes airports, commercial units, hospitals, ports, power stations (including wind farms), railways, retail centres, roads, water treatment and supply, waste water collection treatment and disposal as well as supporting all the other utilities.

The need to invest in up-grading the country’s infrastructure is overwhelming. Not only to fill in the millions of potholes in our roads, or build new flood defences to protect our houses and businesses, but as importantly to address the challenges of climate change.

No surprise, therefore to see, in next week's General Election, parties are vying with each to promise more and more investment in the build environment’s infrastructure.

Even if half of it comes true there will be a massive increase in construction over the next ten years.

That sounds great, but and there is always a but:

Where’s the workforce coming from to deliver such a massive increase in building?

The economy is already, arguably, at full employment in all practical senses. And the construction industry has skills gaps in lots of areas.

Set against this potentially big demand, we are seeing a decline in funding for adult skills; whilst apprenticeships at the craft level have fallen since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy.

None of this augers well for us being in a place to actually meet the ambitions of our politicians and our fellow citizens who want to see the improvements investment will bring.

So if we are going to avoid meeting the demand in skills by a significant increase in immigration, which will itself just add more pressure on the overloaded infrastructure, what can we do?

5 ways to meet the demand in skills without adding more pressure on the overloaded infrastructure

I believe we need to have a strategy which involves five key work-streams:

1. Attract a diverse workforce

First, we need an initiative to make construction become seen as an attractive sector to work in.

Integral to this will be attracting women and people from ethnic minorities who perhaps traditionally have not working in construction in large numbers.

2. Increase productivity by constructing SMARTER

Secondly, we need to increase productivity by greater use of digital and artificial technologies as well as a move a greater proportion of off-manufacturing (referred to a DFMA) for new construction.

NOCN’s recent report entitled “Seeing is believing - Constructing SMARTER”, published with WorldSkills UK, provides more detail on this.

3. Invest in training facilities and staff

Thirdly, to support the increase in productivity, we will need to significantly increase funding for adult skills and retrain the workforce. However, to do this we must start by investing in our trainers so they fully understand the new technologies and off-site manufacturing techniques.

Training providers and FE colleges will need to invest in the new equipment and technologies so they have the capability and capacity to train on the new digital technologies an off-site manufacturing (DFMA).

These digital technologies are wide ranging and include SMART build, lean manufacturing, building information modelling (BIM), computer aided design (CAD), robotics, virtual reality (VR/AR) technologies with simulation and drones (UAV) (LIDAR). We need to invest carefully.

4. Invest in new technologies

Fourthly, employers will need to invest in the new technologies and off-site manufacturing so they can capitalise on opportunities and improve the performance and international competitiveness of their businesses.

5. A more agile qualification system

Finally, Government must under-pin this with an efficient funding regime and an agile technical and vocational education and training (TVET) system of qualifications, short courses and apprenticeships which supports the digital economy.

This needs to be a system which is ‘owned’ by employers, employees, the trade unions, training providers and awarding/assessment bodies.

All of this will require a major increase in investment in adult skills and up-skilling the existing workforce.

This upskilling will have to occur ahead of plans to increase investment in infrastructure.

Which-ever government is in power this December, it will not be able to duck the urgent need to invest in skills as well as infrastructure.

Graham Hasting-Evans, Group Managing Director of NOCN and President of British Association of Construction Heads

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