In the war for talent, it seems recruitment is only half the battle. Conversely, the skills crisis is a sign that the housebuilding industry is doing something right. Any sector that increases its output by 74% over four years is bound to feel stretched. While efforts have been concentrated on finding new recruits, housebuilders warn that the skills crisis is not simply a numbers game.
“There are plenty of avenues to recruit from,” says Anthony Wilkinson, head of talent development at Crest Nicholson. “You’ve got to have access to job platforms, you’ve got to make the most of social media platforms and have colleagues who are willing to go into colleges and open days. So, the avenues are there, it’s just whether we tap into them or not.”
It seems the real challenge is finding the right recruits, holding onto them and nurturing them through the ranks.
When members of the House of Lords discussed the alarming drop in apprenticeship starts at a select committee in February, some members of the committee argued that the emphasis should be on raising the standard of apprenticeships, rather than the number on offer. The majority of apprenticeships in the UK are level two – just above GCSE level. The skills crisis in the UK stems from a shortage of workers at level three or four.
“If you want to find experienced hires who have worked in the sector previously it can sometimes be challenging,” says Karen Jones, group HR director at Redrow. “At the moment, there is particular pressure on site managers. However, the pool of resource is wider if you are prepared to bring in new entrants looking for their first role or people who are moving from another sector.”
Thanks to the introduction of T-Levels and the apprenticeship levy, the new next wave of talent is likely to hit construction sites straight from school. While this is good news for the sector, it presents a different challenge.
New research has revealed a gaping chasm between what young people and employers expect from each other. A survey carried out for WorldSkills UK and the Careers & Enterprise Company, in which 2,000 young people were surveyed, showed that the majority (62%) believe that they are ready for the workplace.
These figures are in stark contrast to the CBI’s annual Education and Skills survey in which the majority of its members said that many young people are leaving school without the right skill set or attitude needed for success at work.
It is a challenge housebuilders are all too aware of as they shepherd young recruits from a classroom to a construction site.
“More could be done to recruit the right sort of person,” says Wilkinson. “A lot of them aren’t site ready. There is a common trend among housebuilders to say that someone doesn’t have the right skills. We have to take responsibility for that. We have to make sure someone has a great first six months in the industry so they stay in the profession.”
“If they are school or university leavers in their first role they may need support in finding their feet,” agrees Jones. “This could range from adapting their report writing style from an academic one to a business one, to understanding the team dynamics in the workplace. A good induction and training programme will support this transition. Within a very short timeframe most of our young new entrants adapt and do well.”
Having gone to such pains to usher in a new generation of housebuilders, keeping them safely aboard should be a priority. “If you only retain half of new recruits, you will double the skills gap over the next two years,” said Wilkinson.
Crest Nicholson began tracking the retention rate of its new recruits four years ago, and believes this should be standard industry practice. Of Crest Nicholson’s apprentices, 64% remain in the housebuilding industry.
“With a marked slump in the number of people taking apprenticeships, it’s no surprise that the focus has been on getting new starters through the door,” says Stav Aristokle Hill, REACH Apprenticeship Programme manager for Berkeley Homes. “But the reality is that once people start an apprenticeship scheme, they are not always staying. Government figures indicate that one in three apprentices failed to complete their apprenticeship programme in 2015-16.”
Not only does the industry need to keep recruits from leaving, it must also keep them learning. Sadly, there some areas where training is clearly lacking. Wannabe housebuilders typically lack the skills to start their own business, despite the fact they will probably spend large swaths of their career working as a subcontractor.
“To ensure our young people have applied skills, not just theoretical ones, we should review the way maths and English is taught as part of an apprenticeship programme to ensure that modules impart skills that are vocationally and technically relevant to an apprentice’s chosen career path,” says Jones.
A housebuilding apprentice might also find that standards in training can differ wildly. “The quality of trainers is inconsistent – there are pockets of brilliance in the industry,” says Wilkinson. “There’s no reason why we can’t improve that. There’s been a legacy of point and do; however, bringing an apprentice up to speed more quickly is in everyone’s interest. We need to create a culture of coaching and mentoring to improve professionalism in the sector.”
Sadly, it is difficult to achieve consistency in an industry that is vulnerable to economic sentiment. “Training in the housebuilding industry can be very cyclical – it is easy to develop exceptional trainers during periods of very high demand as everyone needs help upskilling their new recruits, the challenge is for everyone in the industry to take a longer-term approach in order to maintain and develop the right levels of talented trainers,” says Darryl Stewart, training and analysis manager for the NHBC.
“Training needs to be targeted and up to date, and training organisations need to ensure their interventions are truly adding value to the industry and not just ticking boxes,” he adds. “At NHBC, data and professional excellence drives much of what we do, but sadly there are training providers who are behind the curve, still teaching old regulations or outdated construction methods.”
Jones agrees that there needs to be more collaboration between employers and education providers: “Better collaboration will ensure that students not only benefit from work placements but that teachers and lecturers, particularly in trades and site management, have an up-to-date knowledge of how the housebuilding sector operates.”
The price of poor training is apparent. CITB-funded research found that in the UK construction sector, the overall cost of avoidable errors is on average 21% of project value – greater than the average profit margin for a typical construction project.
But these aren’t necessarily mistakes made by fresh-faced housebuilders. According to Wilkinson, a housebuilder’s workforce needs to be continually upgraded: “The industry has been bullish about bringing in lots of new recruits. We need to be very careful about calling those people skilled after two or three years.”
While the labour shortage will continue to hit the headlines, a poorly prepared labour force will hit the industry harder. The housebuilding industry needs to build its workforce; however, its workforce must be built to last.