Building a homegrown workforce

A panel of world-famous architects recently warned that Britain could miss out on a renaissance in timber construction because of a lack of investment in building methods and skilled workers. With Brexit likely to further exacerbate the skills shortage how can the sector build a strong homegrown workforce for the future?

By Michelle Gordon

The need for more homegrown expertise and a greater understanding of timber in the construction industry was highlighted at this year’s Timber Expo by a panel of world-famous architects.

Britain could miss out on a renaissance in timber construction they cautioned because of a lack of investment in building methods and skilled workers.

Darron Haylock of Foster & Partners explained how the two leading contractors that worked on the architect’s recent Maggie’s Centre building at The Christie in Manchester were from overseas.

“We are struggling in the UK to find specialist contractors who can deal with the timber creativity required to push boundaries,” he said. “We need to develop that knowledge and experience in the UK and promote the use of timber in our buildings.”

TRADA’s Rupert Scott called for more investment in timber engineers, contractors, project managers and factories.

He said: “Timber expertise still has a long way to go in the UK, so we need to find ways to attract and train the brightest and the best. We need to look at the skills shortage that exists and as an industry work together to develop that.

“TRADA is working closely with many universities in its Urban Buzz 2018 competition to generate interest in timber engineering but it really requires a drive on a more macro level.

“Young talent needs to see that there is a future in building in timber, and we need to create even more impressive structures to gain their interest. Some government intervention into research and training would lead the way to more sustainable timber construction taking place in the UK.”

The use of timber as a building material is growing in the UK and engineered wood products that have been used for decades in other European countries are beginning to take hold. The number of homes being built from timber is increasing.

The latest TimberTrends report, published by the Structural Timber Association (STA), highlighted a significant growth in the use of structural timber frame by the housing sector over the last 12 months and predicted that the sector has the potential to reach a 32.4% market share by 2018.

STA research has also shown that 74% of the UK’s contractors, developers, architects and registered providers plan to increase specification of structural timber systems. “Growth is being driven by demand for public and private housing together with commercial buildings,” said Andrew Carpenter, chief executive of the STA.

“The timber sector is at a very exciting place right now. Housing is the number one internal, political priority and offsite construction is accepted by the majority as the only way to build a significant number of additional houses.”

Timber is the building material of choice right now said Carpenter but “whilst the construction industry is buoyed by the predicted expansion, the lack of traditional construction skills is a concern and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union has the potential to compound the situation.”

The British Woodworking Federation’s (BWF) Joinery State of Trade Survey Q3 2017 revealed that the medium-term prospects of the joinery industry remain sound, but growing concerns over skills, raw materials and the implications of Brexit are fostering long-term uncertainty.

Sales growth is still expected, at least in the medium term, with order books holding up well, manufacturers felt that sales volumes would improve in the next quarter and more than half of firms are operating at over four fifths of their capacity.

But labour availability is becoming a growing concern, with labour shortages and raw materials costs continuing to bite said BWF policy and communications executive Matt Mahony.

The impending Brexit looks sure to exacerbate the situation as the sector faces the prospect of losing hundreds of skilled workers from across the EU. We have to assume that the sector will lose some skilled migrant workers but a reliance on workers from outside of the UK is a short-term fix and not a long-term plan and we should be focusing on ensuring a skilled workforce for the future anyway, said Tony Batchelor, training manager for the BWF. A reliance on imported labour is not the only reason for the skills gap, said Batchelor.

The sector has an ageing workforce and with fewer young people choosing a career in timber there are simply not enough workers to replace the 400,000 that the industry is predicted to lose to retirement over the next decade.

“A real challenge in the current environment is to ensure school leavers have the right information and guidance to make an informed career decision and escape the higher education whirlpool created by the current UK education system,” he said. “Added to this, a critical introduction to our sector has been Design and Technology provision in school and the drop in GCSE entries is a real concern. This started with the removal of the requirement for all pupils to study Design and Technology GCSE in 2004 and has continued, particularly over the last four years as Government policy and hence school budgets have prioritised traditional, subjects over creative, artistic and technical ones.

“Numbers have decreased nationally from 440,000 in 2004 to 185,279 last year. In this backdrop teacher recruitment is also a concern for D&T and last year for the third year running was less than 50% of the target set by the Department for Education.”

Many young people have a negative view of the construction industry and are unaware of the career options available beyond the trades. The perception and reality, however, are very different said Carpenter and something that the industry has to try and change. There have been dozens of schemes in recent years to introduce the construction sector to young people, to educate them about the breadth of opportunities available and to support them into the sector but there remains a lack of structured careers guidance which Batchelor calls a “national outrage”. “We are quite possibly suffering from an initiative overload when much of the problem should be focused on the fact that there isn’t a process to feed into,” he said.

“We are trying to rationalise our own work through the Wow I Made That! Campaign and bring into that the MakeIt! competition that we recently took over from the now defunct Proskills, aimed at influencing existing Design and Technology taught programmes in schools with learning focused around wood and furniture”. The Wow I Made That! Campaign was launched to provide relevant information and guidance for those considering a career in the woodworking, joinery and manufacturing industry. It gives useful information about the types of job roles available in the sector, guidance on how to get into those roles and how individuals can move up their respective career ladder.

The campaign also provides case studies and videos of apprentices already in the industry talking about why they love it and the exciting projects they get to work on. It also has an apprenticeship vacancy service and training provider search to help identify opportunities for those wishing to enter and work in the woodworking, joinery and manufacturing industry.

Other successful schemes include Constructing Excellence South West’s Adopt a School campaign, which is supported by the Southern Construction Framework.  It encourages construction-related companies to ‘buddy up’ with their local schools in a bid to raise the profile of construction as a career choice with young people and to improve the sector’s image. It is working with the CITB to create more Construction Ambassadors within each of the clubs in the South West region, and aims to link up schools and construction businesses in ongoing partnerships, which will be expected to create a menu of school-based activities such as construction-related career’s fairs.

Class of Your Own Limited has been delivering one-day workshops and other built environment student engagement programmes to schools and colleges since 2009 and in September 2012 launched its full and accredited Design Engineer Construct! (DEC) curriculum and learning programme. It aims to create and inspire the next generation of Built Environment professionals through a project-based approach, which applies pure academic subjects to the latest construction industry practices.

Funding for apprenticeships has improved in recent years with greater flexibility in terms of age and previous training but the infrastructure needs more attention said Batchelor. “In many cases existing apprenticeships don’t deliver what employers really need, in some cases falling short of employer expectations and the requirement to meet specific skills needs.”

And while the move to promote vocational training is underway, it is very much work in progress, he said. “There appears to be a real lack of provision for the specialist sectors and in the mainstream occupations it often seems to be much more around quantity over quality.”

This is one of the main reasons that BWF is focusing on Centres of Excellence, an initiative it has set up with the National Association of Shopfitters (NAS) to give access to high-quality, industry-endorsed, and flexible training provision for apprenticeships and other training for the joinery, shopfitting & interior fit out industries. The network is made up of FE education colleges and private training providers across the UK, and they are audited by BWF to ensure the training they provide is of the high standard the industry demands, with continuous feedback loops to ensure it remains at the highest of standards.

Clearly there are some successful schemes out there working to bring more people into the construction sector and to educate them about how many different career options there are but the number of people coming into construction needs to rise dramatically if the skills gap is to close.

Batchelor urges the sector to get behind its trade associations to drive improvement in training and skills which he said are just as important for those already working within the sector. “I am working with the BWF and STA to drive improvement. We get great input and ideas from our members, but the more support we get the more we can do,” he said. “I am the first full-time education and training manager that BWF has employed and this is in recognition of the growing importance of our role, working with industry, CITB, the Institute for Apprenticeships, schools, colleges and independent training providers, not just to create the right infrastructure, but to ensure that all have access to the right information and that we don’t allow complexity and jargon to stand in the way of a healthy skills and training culture.”

There is also a culture of “someone else will sort it for me,” he said, and the industry needs to come together more with companies large and small telling their trade bodies what they need from a skills and training perspective.

Mark Farmer’s recent Modernise or Die review sends out a “stark but not unrealistic challenge to construction,” said Batchelor. Quantity surveyor Farmer, a 25-year veteran of the industry, slammed the sector’s “dysfunctional training model” its “lack of innovation and collaboration” and its “non-existent research and development culture” in his independent review of the UK’s construction labour model. “

As the recent industry report by Mark Farmer of Cast Consultancy clearly demonstrates, the traditional construction industry needs to modernise or die,” said Carpenter, who believes a move towards offsite construction could help to alleviate the pressure caused by the skills shortage.

“As offsite manufactured solutions structural timber systems are ‘ahead of the curve’ hence the sector is gaining traction as more construction professionals turn to innovative timber systems,” he said.

“Offsite construction – the prefabrication, modularisation and standardisation of construction processes and assets within controlled factory environments – continues to be quoted across Government and industry as a potential catalyst in meeting the challenges the industry faces.”

And so, the timber sector must take up the challenge to modernise, and not just survive, but thrive with a strong, skilled workforce for the future

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