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JLL responds to Construction Skills Review Consultation

Ministers call on construction industry to review skills pressures to tackle housing crisis

​The Construction Leadership Council has been asked by Housing Minister Brandon Lewis and Skills Minister Nick Boles to review what skills the construction industry needs to tackle the UK housing crisis.

In response to the request, The Construction Leadership Council published questions for consultation and welcomed comments from the industry by 29 February 2016. Helen Gough, Lead Director, Buildings & Construction UK, JLL, issued her thoughts below.

Evidence of how the construction labour model and recruitment practices impact on incentives for skills development in the sector (including in the supply chain) and on the introduction of more novel techniques such as off-site construction.

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, builders swapped to other trades, apprentices shied away from the construction industry and the UK's components factories were decommissioned. This has led to a chronic skills shortage across the industry, which has not yet been remedied.

It's clear that the construction industry's reputation has suffered hindering recruitment growth and also hampering the large scale development of new schemes and construction methods. The sector is also bedevilled by time-lag issues. Once people are trained they then have to gain experience which further compounds the shortage.

While the lack of capacity throughout key trades and supply chains continues, contractors will continue to be project selective, basing decisions on their available resource, the likelihood of success, the client and the complexity of the work. This will unfortunately serve to prolong and make this shortage more severe. More needs to be done to professionalise construction and have it recognised alongside Engineering as a STEM subject especially with the emergence of new and innovative technology and the skills they involve. Examples include cross-laminated timber which is increasingly being used in medium-sized residential and commercial buildings. However, this requires carpentry-type skills rather than general builders.


What business models and other arrangements could better support skills and skills pipelines in the sector?

Construction will always be a labour intensive industry so innovation in process and materials will not fix the whole issue. 

A crucial part of the skills solution involves a widening of the recruitment pool. Despite the investment in apprenticeships under the Coalition Government, we are still seeing a lack of apprentices coming on board.

Another key element to consider is diversity in construction which could hold some of the answers, by making the sector more appealing for women. It has been highlighted that women in construction only represents 11.2% of the workforce, having dropped over the last three years. Greater outreach to women is definitely something that should be perused. There are some good initiatives that need to continue to get Government support including the #NotJustForBoys Government campaign and #SeeMeJoinMe, the RIBA and RICS scheme initiative that JLL joined last year.

In addition, we cannot ignore the importance of the access to labour that the EU gives us. A Brexit that may jeopardise accessing this talent would have serious consequences for skills levels across the sector.

Skills shortages are nothing new – construction work has always been dictated by market forces. However, today's shortages have prompted more discussion about what tomorrow's construction jobs will look like.

It is only a matter of time before semi-automated construction methods, such as lifting and placing of bricks and precision drilling of holes in concrete ceilings with the help of construction robots, become widespread.

In the meantime, traditional trades will be in high demand and short supply. The construction sector needs to recruit not only to respond to the positive business cycle but also to replace older workers leaving the industry. And materials such as bricks will be hard to source until manufacturing plants can meet demand or alternative building materials will become more accepted.


What measures could improve wider incentives for capacity investment and the introduction of new ways of working?

Investment in off-site manufacturing along with modern methods of construction such as 3D printing has the potential to facilitate a step change in construction delivery. We are increasingly seeing the utilisation of innovative and sustainable materials such as cross laminated timber, self-healing concrete and vacuum-based glazing and examples of processes on sites where a 'factory production line' approach is being taken.

However, while innovative products are being developed all the time by British universities and have the potential to ease the supply chain burden  they have to be thoroughly checked that they are fit for purpose and meet all sorts of British and EU standards which of course takes time. Ongoing support for research and development in the UK would help realise the potential of different working practices.

Looking at how this process could be streamlined would be a good starting point and could then encourage the development of other new practices.


What are the barriers and enablers to greater use of off-site construction?

Offsite construction can help to ensure projects are completed not just on time, but also with a  higher level of construction quality management. Structurally, modular buildings are stronger than conventional construction because they are engineered to withstand the inflexibilities of transportation and craning.  

Use of cross-laminated timber is a prime example of one off-site form of construction. The product will continue to become more and more popular for both residential and commercial buildings within the 7 to 10-storey building range. It can replace traditional materials and has a positive impact on embodied carbon. Crucially, it can also help with project timeframes because workforces aren't needed for as long on-site as compared to conventional construction.

A key barrier to the growth of off-site construction is lack of widespread take up from clients and designers of these new materials. Here the government and industry both have a role to play in breaking this barrier down. Bodies such as the Construction Industry Council should look at communicating to construction companies and designers that technology and innovation can revolutionise the industry, particularly emphasising the acceleration of project times.  Government can help by stimulating build rates and examining housing policy. Encouraging and incentivising investment in new off-site technologies would also help. 

How could the range of participants in the UK housing market be broadened, including through the better introduction of institutional funds?

Successive Governments have played politics with housing solutions and avoided the very real structural challenges of an industry that does not have enough workers and struggles to innovate. No amount of short-term land deals or incentives will create the capacity for higher volume construction that the UK desperately needs.

Soaring construction costs and increasingly choosy contractors are hampering the nation's efforts to build desperately needed homes, offices and infrastructure.

We are seeing much more interest from the UK Funds in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and with this housing – and building from this with the Institutional Funds.