A Bountiful Desert: The labour paradox in construction


Two industry professionals present separate views of the labour challenge in construction that could help us to win new talent to the sector and change the way we market the industry to the wider public.

Bountiful desert.
by Rory ButlerFebruary 17, 2023

The labour and recruitment challenge in construction is seemingly paradoxical. 

On the one hand, job opportunities appear healthy – and yet prospective candidates are failing to locate the sorts of roles they want. Let’s find out why. 

In this article we examine two separate accounts of the industry that reflect an opposing view of job quality and availability, to pinpoint where the problem could reside. 

The recruiter 

A lead recruiter recently told CW jobs abound in the sector, but that there simply isn’t the candidates coming forward to fill them. Quantity Surveyors, Project Managers, Estimators, Design experts, Bricklayers and Electricians – these professions and others are in high demand, and yet the supply isn’t there. 

GVR Solutions founder Geoff Vincent – whose firm provides mainly white-collar personnel to the industry – even described a sort of famine mentality in the recruitment sector, where certain agencies actively pose as prospective candidates to acquire a rival’s job information, which they then advertised to make commission. Mr Vincent also said dishonesty of this kind is “rife” in his sector. 

Could it be then that the use of underhand methods in recruitment is an indicator (and symptom) of a scarcity of new talent coming through? The job landscape according to The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) is seemingly to the contrary. 

The candidate 

Mark Harrison, head of EDI, reported a wider and even “encouraging” range of skilled individuals from all backgrounds coming through the education route – people keen to get hired to the kinds of roles Mr Vincent described.  

He added: “On the one hand we’ve got universities saying they’re equipping students, [but] they’re just not being given jobs. On the other hand, we’re talking to employers who are looking for diverse students, who want to employ gender balance in their organisation, but people aren’t applying. We need to investigate that.” 

Mr Harrison did however identify several issues within the industry that he feels might deter a would-be PM or QS from taking the next step, citing culture and reputational problems, inadequate PPE and mental health provision, lingering gender imbalances, a stark work/life picture, as well as some issues surrounding prejudice.  

Societal challenge 

He went on to say that a wholesale regime change, led by the top firms and backed up by a well-managed marketing strategy, is necessary to convince new talent to come through – and to create a more positive perception in wider society about the virtues of a career in construction. 

“Senior leadership is so important on this,” he said. “Without senior buy-in, these issues won’t change. If senior leadership buy into making a workplace inclusive and welcoming, where staff feel they belong, that is very evident. Without senior leadership, some people find a way to ignore the agenda. It’s not just the senior leaders though who have responsibility. Image, branding is important. What message are we sending? Promoting a meritocracy and making everybody welcome – that’s got to be good for everyone. 

“We know in schools that construction is seen as the ‘last resort’. It’s not a career that is upheld as a ‘profession’, which is very disappointing. The challenge is how we change that perception. We need to be reaching kids in primary school when they’re developing, thinking about what they want to be. By the time they’ve got to secondary school, those choices have largely been made. That is a societal challenge.” 

He added: “Retention is an equal issue to recruitment. It’s not a good idea to just focus on recruitment and forget about workplace culture. If people come into an organisation where there is a toxic culture – people leave.” 

We just had National Apprenticeship Week where case studies of fresh-faced young workers in over-sized high-vis jackets and hard hats slightly askew abounded. But when faced with the stark projections recently published by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), the sector has yet to prepare for the “massive problem” that lies ahead, said Mr Harrison.  

“We’ll need almost 250,000 extra workers by 2027, and that’s with current projects,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve got an ageing workforce with 35% over the age of 50 and only 10% between the ages of 19 and 24. When you consider the average age of retirement is around 55, we’ve got a massive problem coming.” 

 “Changing the image and reputation of the sector” must come from the top down, he reiterated.   

If you have a tip about a potential story in your sector, email news@constructionwave.co.uk 

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