CONSTRUCTION JOURNAL

Why industry must get a grip on recruitment

How can construction businesses attract and retain talent when skills are in short supply and recruitment is a seller's market?

Author:

  • Melani King

15 November 2023

overhead picture of graduates in gowns

Construction has long been the backbone of the global economy, building the infrastructure on which societies rely. In recent times, however, the industry has faced formidable challenges finding and recruiting the right talent.

Prospective candidates – even those dissatisfied with their current positions – are exercising caution, and want compelling reasons to make a move. Some strategic or niche roles are therefore taking considerable time to fill.

For instance, the demand for professionals in specialised fields such as data centres has far outstripped supply.

As a global consultancy working across a range of sectors, we have seen a particular increase in the number of applications from quantity surveyors and project managers with a contractor background, due to the perception that it is a safer avenue of employment. Despite this, there is still a huge deficit of workers due to a lack of the right skills.

The shift may be attributed to the current economic climate, where advisers are seen as offering stable professional prospects compared to the volatility experienced in other parts of the construction cycle.

Skills shortage exacerbated by socioeconomic factors

Smaller and medium-sized businesses such as ours emphasise the importance of personality fit, rather than focusing solely on technical skill sets.

It is not just about finding the right person for the job: it is about finding the right fit for the organisation.

However, the skills shortage in the construction industry in general and the UK in particular is a well-documented issue. This was exacerbated by Brexit, because many site-based roles had previously been taken up by European workers.

One kind of professional consistently in high demand is quantity surveyors. They play a pivotal role in cost management, and their expertise is crucial to ensuring projects stay on budget. The difficulty in finding them can thus lead to bottlenecks in project planning and execution.

In contrast, project managers are more readily available, and in recent years there has been a noticeable improvement in the diversity of this talent pool, which is very welcome. However, looming economic uncertainty in the UK has cast a shadow over the wider recruitment landscape.

Apprenticeships can be a brilliant way to deal with labour shortages in construction, and this route to becoming a quantity surveyor or project manager is gaining more and more traction, especially compared with the traditional route of taking a degree and then obtaining a professional qualification.

Those now completing their apprenticeships are getting very good feedback from their employer to indicate they are particularly strong candidates because they have a wealth of practical experience. The trick for employers hiring apprentices is holding on to them when their studies are complete.

The overall quality of applicants, though, is a mixed bag. There has not been a notable change in applicants' skills improving or declining in the past five years.

One trend of particular concern is the continued lack of diversity in applications, especially for senior QS positions and leadership roles. The industry still grapples with a shortage of candidates with diverse backgrounds in terms of gender and ethnicity.

Thankfully, we have seen an increase in the pipeline of younger, more diverse graduates entering the field, suggesting a more inclusive future for the industry.

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Industry image in need of overhaul

Perceptions of the industry, some of which may be based on out-of-date stereotypes – for instance, the idea that construction is a typically male-dominated field – may play a part in this.

To tackle this, construction firms can make sites more female-friendly by promoting fair representation of women in construction, championing successful female role models, tackling gender discrimination with stricter policies on issues such as harassment, and introducing better-fitting PPE that is tailored to women.

In addition to its problematic public image, construction also has a reputation for being slightly behind the curve on technology, which is a barrier for the new generation of graduates who have been familiar with technology almost from birth.

Rejuvenating the sector's wider reputation could be key to addressing the labour shortage. Savvy, forward-thinking businesses will already have digitised most or all of their processes, whether advanced job reporting to van leasing.

This will also create a network of design and technology roles that may have more appeal to younger, technology-literate professionals than images of cold construction sites and muddy boots.

Cost of living and pandemic embolden candidates

Even when it gets to interview stage, we have noticed two prominent trends.

First, applicants are becoming more assertive about their salary expectations, especially those already in mid-level positions. The escalating cost of living in the UK has put financial pressure on jobseekers, leading them in turn to demand competitive compensation packages.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our approach to work. While more people are returning to the office, there remains an expectation of flexibility.

Candidates want to be able to balance work with family life, and adaptable working hours have become a pivotal discussion point during interviews.

Beyond these points, there seems to be an increasing number of enquiries about the potential for international moves out of the UK. The pandemic prevented people exploring such options, so this desire seemed to multiply considerably when travel resumed.

Added to this, the persistent cost-of-living crisis in the UK has encourage a lot of talent at the mid to senior level to leave the country.

'The escalating cost of living in the UK has put financial pressure on jobseekers'

Reviewing retention can stem loss of talent

While the industry clearly needs to tackle the overall labour shortage, individual companies could address some of their own talent challenges by instead working hard to hold on to staff and avoid attrition.

Yet talent retention seems to be the poor cousin in the discussion about how to deal with skills shortages.

Given the high level of competition, employers must stay competitive. Traditionally, unlike other sectors or markets, construction does not offer progressive benefits. The pandemic offered a chance to reset this.

In 2021, therefore, many businesses re-evaluated their working environments, reviewing their benefits schemes, focusing on employees' mental health and well-being and investing more heavily in training and development.  

Innovating to engage the next generation

Recruiting for the construction sector is rife with challenges, from the perennial shortage of quality CVs to the evolving demands of candidates. Adapting to these trends will be crucial for businesses and jobseekers alike.

As the industry continues to transform, it is imperative that we find innovative ways to attract, retain, and nurture talent while fostering greater diversity and inclusivity.

The future of construction relies on the people who build, and it's time to ensure that the industry is as dynamic and resilient as the structures it creates.

The direction of construction is hotly debated, but one thing for certain is that businesses and government need to act fast – the sector is worth £61bn to the UK economy. One solution could be to make the industry more accessible to a wider range of applicants.

Businesses should take the chance to educate potential employees about the wealth of opportunities available from modernising construction techniques. Apprenticeships are also a great way to increase accessibility, providing a reliable route into employment from school.

Finally, businesses should advertise the fiscal benefits of working in construction. It remains one of the highest-paying industries in the UK, with enormous opportunities for progression. This will be a priority for young people dealing with current cost-of-living anxieties.

'As the industry continues to transform, it is imperative that we find innovative ways to attract, retain, and nurture talent'

Melani King is the director of talent at cost and project management consulting firm MGAC

Contact Melani: Email | LinkedIn

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