Offsite construction is changing the way that we build in the UK, but it needs a strong workforce for the future if it is to reach its true potential.
According to the latest annual survey from the CITB, 150,000 jobs will be created in construction over the next five years but with an ageing workforce and the UK’s impending exit from the European Union, the sector will struggle to recruit the numbers that it needs to keep pace with demand.
Offsite construction is changing the way that we build in the UK and has the potential to boost productivity by constructing buildings faster and more efficiently, but it too is facing a shortage of skills.
“There is an incredible shortage of skilled candidates across the board now in offsite and we have more vacancies to work on than we have ever had. Candidates are being snapped up within a week and are getting multiple offers and counter offers” said Jim Roach managing director and owner of specialist recruitment agency ARV Solutions.
“At the same time a lot of people are very nervous about moving jobs because they feel that there is an uncertainty in the economy with Brexit.
“We are seeing a lot less international candidates coming through because they feel less welcome and more nervous. The exchange rate has changed and it is less beneficial to be here. It is tighter than ever at a time when you think we could be going great guns.”
The lack of suitable candidates for new roles is holding the offsite construction sector back and could stall its growth. If the sector is to stand any chance of keeping up with demand companies must start looking further afield when recruiting and find new candidates with the appropriate skillset from other manufacturing-based industries.
“We have been talking about the skills shortage forever and a lot of people have been asking us for the same skills – a timber frame designer from a timber frame background, which is fine and seems to be common sense but actually what is beginning to be needed is new skills to come in for these roles, potentially from other industries,” said Roach.
“The roles are changing. Your timber frame designer is beginning to become a BIM modeller in some places, your production manager now needs to work with production engineers and manufacturing engineers in a more automated, more process driven, more lean manufacturing environment, your project managers and site managers are very much installation managers rather than managing a building project, so the roles are changing, and we see a need and a great potential to change the sorts of people doing those roles and a need to attract them from, dare I say it, more advanced manufacturing industries to help them achieve that.”
Faster, Smarter, More Efficient: Building Skills for Offsite Construction, a research report conducted by the CITB last year, assesses how the adoption of offsite is changing the skills and training landscape for construction. It identifies the functions required for successful implementation of offsite, what skills are needed, the gaps in training provision and what industry and CITB can do to address these challenges.
It says that in the future new roles will be required, such as automation technicians or DFM process managers with digital design skills, together with hybrid manufacturing roles such as digital construction managers, who will take ownership of the product end-to-end.
The report looked at six core functions across the offsite process – digital design, estimating, logistics, offsite manufacture, onsite assembly and site management.
It recognises the need for “more manufacturing type” skills and a knowledge of manufacturing processes said Ben Lever, future skills and innovation lead at the CITB.
“Within each of those functions there are existing roles that are going to need updating,” he explained. For example, designers and quantity surveyors will need to have knowledge of what design for manufacture is and what it means working with BIM and digital technologies. They will need to integrate that into their fundamental design principles and quantity surveying principles, so from the start they are aware and thinking about the options and opportunities that offsite has.
“Offsite can only really be done well and achieve benefits if it is thought of right at the start rather than bolted on,” said Lever. “There is some element of fundamental changes in how things are done and in other areas it is more augmentation and adaptation to how those things are done but it is clear from the research that across the board there are skills and training needs as a result of moving to offsite.”
Some offsite manufacturers are already starting to change the way in which they recruit and more people from other manufacturing sectors are moving into offsite construction. A prime example is Rosie Toogood, CEO of Legal & General’s (L&G) modular housing business. She joined L&G last year from Rolls-Royce where she was business development director for its civil aerospace business.
“It is easy to say they are not the right skills and they won’t understand timber and there is some truth in that but if we can teach aerospace and automotive engineers about timber and about the peculiarities of construction then you get huge gains,” said Roach
“One of the best production managers that I have ever met moved from aero structures to modular buildings and when I asked him why he moved from that industry to construction he said he saw it as the last bastion for manufacturing.
“It is the one major sector that hadn’t become a manufacturing, industrialised sector and hadn’t moved forward at all.”
The CITB report was discussed at a roundtable on Building Skills for Offsite Construction, hosted by ARV Solutions at Dudley College.
Attendees, including Lever and Roach, focused on how to keep pace with forecasted growth, key roles that are likely to change, factors holding back skills development and how the industry can attract new talent to meet future requirements.
“We wanted to get that message out there that you can’t keep asking for a square peg for a square hole because you can’t move forward on that basis, you will just do what you currently do,” said Roach.
During the roundtable Dan Leech, managing director of the TDS Group explained how after dropping the word ‘construction’ from all of the company’s marketing materials three years ago and changing to ‘engineering’ it started to attract a different calibre of applicants.
Ben Towe, managing director of the Hadley Group, who said that there is crossover between the gaming industry and the digital side of construction and BIM, told how the company is finding new recruits from the aerospace and automotive industries.
“Several people in that room were ex-aerospace and automotive and they said the great difference about construction is that you get to see what you have designed,” said Roach. “In terms of aerospace you will have a 10-year design and development programme and in construction that is far faster, and you see what you have designed and made, and that is a massive attractor, I think, to get people to move into the industry.”
The general consensus was that there needs to be more confidence and maturity in the market before automation completely takes off, and that this needs to be supported by government investment, as well as by clients working with offsite manufacturers on more of a long-term basis.
Attracting more young people into the sector is also key and it was agreed that there is a general lack of training for the multi-discipline skill sets relevant to volumetric modern methods of construction within the current college curriculum.
Provision is “patchy” said Lever, who explained that the CITB has updated some occupational standards to deliver new vocational qualifications in offsite, which will be available later this year.
“That has been developed with employers, so it reflects their needs and it will provide a clear structure for workers to become qualified,” he explained. “But for training more widely. I think it comes down to do colleges want to put the courses on? Do they think there will be enough demand for them? And that comes back to that clear dialogue with employees and to be able to get a clear picture of what they want and if there is going to be demand for these types of skills.”
Construction is an environment which hasn’t traditionally attracted skilled people said Roach, with parents actively discouraging their children from following careers in the industry and teachers and careers officers often not realising how advanced some parts of the sector are.
But perceptions are changing and, through engagement with schools, young people are starting to understand that it is very much more a digital engineering environment now.
The Government also seems to have woken up to the potential of offsite and in the last Budget made a commitment to considering it for all Government projects.
“There is a huge push from Government recognising that construction as it is can’t solve the issues that the Government wants solving – the housing crisis, productivity improvement etc – and it recognises that offsite can help solve the housing crisis and can give overall productivity improvements, so it suits Government now – they have got it,” said Roach.
“We are seeing changes coming through, we are seeing Government being more supportive, we are seeing a lot more long-term investment coming in. If that direction of travel keeps going offsite will grow.”
But that growth will only happen with a strong, stable, skilled workforce to drive it forward.