We all know how bad the situation is when it comes to skilled labour in our industry, and indeed the whole of the construction. Decades of neglect in the education system, with a severe lack of focus on trades both in schools and apprenticeships has led to a situation where all major sub-sectors of construction are in crisis.

Yesterday a friend of mine vented his frustrations at the chronic lack of talent out there:

Had adverts out for trainee…had about 10-15 applications. Got it down to 5 based on CV and location. Had three no-shows, one phoned after the interview and said manual work is not for him. The one that has turned up is keen but can’t read! And that sums up the work force of today.

How is it that out of 15 applicants, this company still wasn’t able to pick a good candidate for the job. There should be half a dozen out of that group that should be presented as a good choice. The fact that one of them cannot read is a damning reflection on the state of education.

Beyond recovery

The demand for housing in this country has never been seasonal like other products. The UK’s population has always grown, therefore the demand for housing from generation to generation has also grown. Yet, for decade after decade we have paid no attention to meeting those demands. And the only way you meet those demands is to train a generation to be skilled trades people.

To fill the gaps we have imported labour to help meet the demand. Good for the person moving and working in the UK. Shameful that our education system and frankly our own attitudes to manual labour means we are having to rely on people from around the world, rather than the convenience of our own population to get the work done.

Here’s the thing, I, as have many others, have been talking about this shortage for close to ten years. Many of us have seen this problem coming. Yet it’s only become worse. David Cameron launched his three million strong apprenticeship scheme when he was Prime Minister. The target was three million new apprentices to be created by 2020 via a levy on the very biggest businesses in the UK. We’re so far behind with that the Government might as well scrap it and start again.

It leads me to believe that we’re actually now at a point where we’re beyond the point of recovery. At least from a human perspective. The time to turn things around was ten years ago when the problems were less acute and less severe. We’re looking at that point in time well in the rear view mirror.

Regardless of the state of the talent pool, homes still need building, windows still need installing, walls still need plastering. The demand isn’t going away. So what happens next?

DGB People

Tech vs pre-fab

Technology and what it can do across all sorts of industries is advancing at breakneck speed. Take a look at this robot that can lay bricks:

I’m not saying that we could be seeing robots fitting windows any time soon. It’s a way more fiddly process than laying bricks. And even that machine needed some level of human input. That being said, we cannot predict in what direction tech might take us next, so I would never rule it out.

I think the more likely scenario is that window installer jobs could begin to be sucked up by the pre-fabrication home market. Long term, brick and mortar homes are going to become too expensive and too slow to cope with long term demand. There is also the energy efficiency argument too. We are seeing more and more companies pop up in the pre-fab home market, where whole sections of homes are put together in the factory, using materials other than bricks and mortar.

These factories create whole home sections out of all sorts of materials, but more importantly, they come already fitted with windows, door, first fix electrics, even plastered and insulated in some cases. All the builder has to do is to assemble it all on site. You can scour YouTube for examples of these types of homes. They shoot up in comparison to traditional brick-built houses.

But from a jobs point of view, it renders the need for on-site plasterers, window fitters etc unnecessary. They’re all in house in the house fabrication factory, and you only need a few teams to get it all done. As the high demand for new homes forces construction to modernise and ditch the old ways of building homes, we can expect to see some traditional job types lost to this rising trend.

That though is very much in the new-build and self-build sectors. The retro-fit market is still going to be huge and there is still going to be a massive gap in skills. Technology isn’t going to help fill that gap, good old fashioned human beings are. But then we’re back to square one, where we haven’t bothered to train a new generation of genuinely qualified, quality skilled trades people.

Ideas on a postcard.

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