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New PM can solve the skills crisis with tech-first approach, says Pagabo

Gerard Toplass, executive chairman, Pagabo

THE NEXT Prime Minister will have to deal with a ticking timebomb in the construction industry when they take office later this week, according to the executive chairman of framework organisation Pagabo.

Gerard Toplass believe that while the rhetoric of promising more houses, hospitals and massive infrastructure developments is vote-winning, it is ignoring the bigger picture of the national skills crisis faced by the construction industry.

Toplass said: “While the politicians study their spreadsheets, examine GDP and other variables and tot up the costs of these large scale capital projects, and then decide we have the cash to construct them, the question that I have is: who is going to build it all?

“We all read the 80-page Farmer Report which shines a spotlight onto a troubled and over-stretched UK construction industry. What is clear is that we don’t have enough skilled people working in the industry today – let alone in the Brexit-battered future when these vast new schemes are ready to be built.”

Toplass believe the shortage is in part down to the industry’s lack of appeal to younger generations.

“Quite simply, the jobs aren’t attracting young people. They aren’t sexy. They’re manual. Who wants to be a bricklayer when you can do a ‘cool’ job like digital marketing?

“Millennials are also more conscious about the environment and their lifestyles. They want to be spending time out and enjoying themselves – not working long hours on a building site and nor do they want to commit to a lifetime construction role. And what are the construction roles?

“Ask any young person about construction opportunities, and they will cite bricklaying or plumbing – with no knowledge of roles in project management, quantity surveying, or engineering. Meanwhile, across the sector, senior people in construction organisations are not taking into account the changing and agile nature of the workforce.

“We are also losing our older construction workers too – with very few younger people to replace them. To make matters worse, we have relied on immigration to plug the gap in construction industry roles – roles which our own workers don’t want.

“This is something else that the government urgently needs to take into consideration – and contractors, supply chain. We all have a responsibility. We are about to leave Europe, but we need to think extremely carefully. While doctors and lawyers are the preferred professions for immigration, we should be looking towards more people who can support in construction roles.”

Toplass also believes that a change of approach is needed in order to ensure the skills the industry is developing are those that are actually needed for the future.

“Ours is a huge industry and in order to get better, we need to change the way we understand skills in the industry. We are constantly calling for young people to join the trades, but let’s stop and think? Do we really need bricklayers? Plumbers? Electricians? The industry is constantly saying it does, but do we?

“The question instead needs to be can we build in a different way? Why do we build buildings that last 500 years? Why don’t we build buildings which last only 50 years and take them down and build them again? We are already building modular homes, and we should look at similar ways of delivering projects.

“As a sector we are lagging behind others when it comes to using robotics and drones. As the Farmer Report states, government, industry and clients, supported by academic expertise should come together to deliver a comprehensive innovation programme for the construction sector.

“Technology in the design of buildings has moved on at pace. We have seen the way BIM is used, and architects now use VR to show how a building looks both inside and out. Technology in design is incredibly. We need do more with automation. For example, why can’t drones clean up overnight on a site so that the workforce arrive on site in the morning to a clean site to start work on? It’s also about process.”

Looking to the future, Toplass concluded by imploring the new Prime Minister to consider the next generation’s requirements when working out how to solve the skills crisis.

“We may need more bricklayers and hands-on, physical skills today, but we need to consider the skillset people will need in the future when automation, artificial intelligence and robotics are more widely adopted by the industry.

“In the next ten years we are going to see a huge shift in the construction industry, thanks to innovation and technology aligned to the changing requirements of the people that work in the industry. The attitude to work is quite different to 10 or 20 years ago, and there is a growing social conscience amongst younger professionals, along with a drive towards agile working with multi-disciplinary teams.”