According to the last ONS census in 2011, one in every five UK-born construction workers were aged over 55, which means that next year those workers will have reached retirement age. And when asked in a recent study, 14-19 -year-olds scored the industry just 4/10 for attractiveness. Clearly, enticing young people into the sector has never been more challenging. Here Paul Richards, Managing Director of Aquarian Cladding Systems, discusses why the potential is out there, why the education system needs to do more to help – and why the perception of the industry needs to change.
The lifeblood of any industry can only be sustained by replenishing it with young people. New blood allows an industry to grow, push boundaries and come up with fresh ideas.
And the construction industry is no different.
There are no exact figures for the average age of a construction worker however it is generally estimated that almost 50% are over 45. And that number is rising so if we conservatively guess the average age this year to be 45, it is fair to assume that it will be 46 next year and 47 the following year in the absence of new blood coming through.
The problem will be worse if Brexit shuts the door on the skilled European workers on which the UK construction relies, as it is estimated that almost three-quarters of all non-UK construction workers are under the age of 45.
The Government has announced its intentions to build HS2, provide more affordable housing and improve the nation’s estate of hospitals, schools, etc. But how? Clearly, solutions to the challenge are urgently required if we are to avoid a point where the industry can no longer deliver everything that is asked of it.
And the sad thing is, it really shouldn’t be this way.
Leaving the industry at 12 years old
The most frustrating thing is that we lose our potential to recruit from a very young age. Think about it – pre-school children become interested in the industry whilst watching Bob the Builder, get their hands dirty with LEGO, and become designers with Minecraft.
So, they are influenced from a young age to pick up the tools like a builder and create like an engineer or architect, before leaving the industry whilst barely a teenager!
We must get to the root of it and challenge what so enthralled them to watch it, play at it, and be creative when IT literate, only to then drop it.
What is it that prevents them from continuing their journey and, in effect, leave the industry at the age of 12?
It can’t be anything other than the education system because somewhere along the line our potential employees are persuaded to do something else. Perhaps teachers and parents are dismissive of the industry? We must work harder to encourage and entice students of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM subjects) to put their new-found skills and knowledge into an industry of opportunity.
One which is the second highest-paid industry sector and makes a long–term difference to the way we live like possibly no other industry.
Perception is key
One of the main problems is that young people see construction through a very narrow window – namely that it’s dirty, low paid, ‘outdoorsy’ and for people who don’t go to college.
When they see a construction site, they see the muck and the mud but not the huge numbers of people that enable the project to happen.
These are perceptions that need to change and it’s fair to say that as an industry our PR could be better.
We need to get the message out to young people and their parents that construction is a highly-skilled and highly-paid industry that offers amazing opportunities for personal development, a lifetime career and the chance to work with some brilliant people.
Ours is a multi-billion-pound industry that is also changing. Offsite construction is on the horizon so hours on site will be reduced and the introduction of technology such as VR, AR and BIM makes for a very exciting future for the more IT-literate.
Spread the word
It’s vital that as an industry we pull together to shrug off the negative stereotypes that make it harder to attract young people.
We need to demonstrate what the industry’s about through schools and inspire students from an early age so that we grab them when they are deciding their future.
We need to engage with the next generation to get them involved in the construction industry and set up initiatives to bring youngsters through the doors to provide them with a glimpse of what goes on to open their eyes.
Constructing Excellence South West is doing just that by pioneering the Adopt a School programme, which encourages construction companies to work closer with schools to demonstrate the great work they do and the opportunities for our future workforce.
Attracting more young people into the industry needs to be urgently addressed as it is hugely important to not only tackle the skills shortage but to safeguard its future.
We can do it by inspiring our children, their friends and our families and friends’ children to make a difference to our built environment. I have thoroughly enjoyed my career in the construction industry. It came completely by accident, but I have no regrets. If you feel the same, spread the word too.
Working with architects, contractors, developers and installation specialists, Aquarian’s cladding systems have been used on many award-winning buildings across a wide range of sectors. Paul has more than 34 years in the industry and is also on the board of directors for Construction Excellence South West.