By Lisa Deane, head of programme performance at Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC)
THE construction sector has shown remarkable resilience over the last couple of years, with a recent report by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) suggesting the industry’s output will return to pre-Covid levels by 2023 and grow at a steady annual rate of 4.1% until 2025. However, to be ready to deliver anywhere close to that level of activity, we first need to turn our attention to construction’s workforce.
It is well documented that the sector faces a growing skills gap, but it also needs to recruit an additional 5,250 workers each year in Scotland to meet predicted demand. There are also around 400,000 skilled construction workers aged 50-65 due to retire over the next 15 years across the UK, placing further emphasis on the need to attract new talent into the sector.
As we see it, there are two major factors that will influence the demand for skills and talent over the coming years. The first is the climate emergency, and while we are at the start of an exciting new chapter as we transition to net zero carbon emissions, we will need more skilled people working in the built environment to help us achieve our collective goal.
Scotland’s Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan, launched at the end of 2020, set out some of the actions required and highlighted a series of priority areas that will require new green skills. Construction, agriculture, transport, manufacturing, and energy were among the core sectors identified as having a critical contribution to achieving net zero.
Alongside the carbon transition, the second big factor the construction industry must also contend with the impact of ongoing digital transformation. The pace of change in technology is rapid, and one of the biggest challenges facing the industry is how to keep up and ensure that Scotland’s workforce can take advantage of the opportunities that technologies can bring.
Particularly in the digital sphere, there is a need to continually refresh skills to make the most of the cutting-edge opportunities in technology, from AI and robotics to data analysis and building information modelling (BIM).
For those at the start of their careers, we have apprenticeships and further and higher education courses, which are beginning to focus more on technology. But, for people five or 10 years into their career journey, training and development opportunities can be more difficult to embrace due to the costs and time associated, as well as the locality of learning opportunities.
Software and hardware providers will have a role to play in delivering training and upskilling programmes to ensure adoption of the latest tools and technologies. We also need more in the way of formal and informal accreditations, such as micro-accreditations and compliance focused online learning programmes.
In reality, we are likely to require a combination of all of these. CSIC is already taking that approach by delivering a range of future skills initiatives for people at different stages of their careers. These include the Low Carbon Learning programme focused on upskilling opportunities in retrofit approaches and Passivhaus standards and the Built Environment Innovation Masters Fund, which supports students to collaborate with industry partners on real-world innovation projects.
Yet, despite the demand for new skills, there is still a degree of nervousness among the industry that needs to be ironed out. Some companies fear that by investing in specialist, cutting-edge training programmes they are at risk of losing employees to competitors. In fact, research has shown that talented young people are more likely to flock to, and then stay at, companies that focus on career development.
The construction industry is waking up to the fact that attracting and retaining good talent with the required skills is becoming increasingly challenging, and the digital skills gap will only widen as we continue down the path of change. If the industry is to make the most of critical opportunities to future-proof the built environment and achieve its predicted growth, it will need to be underpinned by the right digital and low carbon skills, with a workforce ready to embrace change.