Tackling the skills gaps in Scotland’s construction industry

Scotland’s construction industry, with a workforce of more than 225,000 people, is vital to the country’s economy and it has a major role to play in tackling climate change.

“We want to build inclusive and sustainable construction careers” – sign up for a free event to find out more
“We want to build inclusive and sustainable construction careers” – sign up for a free event to find out more

Construction, from house building to large infrastructure projects, has to decarbonise to support Scotland’s target of reaching net zero emissions by 2045.

One of the main challenges, if this ambition is to be achieved, is closing the industry’s skills gap, identified in the Scottish Government’s ‘New housing and future construction skills’ report in 2019. In response to its recommendations, the Housing, Construction and Infrastructure (HCI) Skills Gateway was launched in 2020. Based at Edinburgh Napier University, it is supported with £6 million funding from the UK and Scottish governments through the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. It works in partnership with Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, along with further education colleges in Edinburgh, Scottish Borders, West Lothian, and Fife and the third sector to develop relevant skills.

Tackling the future skills shortage

Kirsty Connell-Skinner, programme manager at HCI Skills Gateway

The size of its task is evident, with Edinburgh Napier University’s Institute for Sustainable Construction forecasting a construction skills supply shortage of more than 3,500 in South East Scotland over the next decade. And the work of HCI Skills Gateway is wide, covering inclusive reach and early skills; employability; getting people into work and upskilling; advanced skills and gender diversity; and talent development. It aims to support more than 3,000 people into construction careers, help 7,000 people improve their qualifications and enable 1,500 to progress their careers, including at least 500 women, by 2025,

Kirsty Connell-Skinner, programme manager at HCI Skills Gateway, a sponsor of the Scotsman Green Skills Conference, says: “We want to build inclusive and sustainable construction careers. The term ‘green jobs’ is a bit of a misnomer. Everyone who is working in construction needs to be knowledgeable and skilled in decarbonising our built environment.

“And if we look at areas such as how we are going to heat our houses, particularly in the current crisis, a diverse mix of people with the skills to help our buildings achieve net zero need to go into construction.”

Identifying support gaps

Earlier this year, HCI Skills Gateway worked with Circular Edinburgh and industry partners to identify what support the construction industry requires in the drive to net zero. More than 150 companies were contacted to examine how they are developing green skills and to identify competency gaps.

Ms Connell-Skinner explains that, based on the in-depth research, it is focusing on five key areas to target diverse audiences. She says: “We're working with partners across the region, such as colleges and the Edinburgh Science Festival, to reach all types of people. This could be five-year olds interested in construction to talented young women pursuing relevant PhDs.”

One of the priority areas is to increase access to retrofit training so existing houses and buildings can be prepared for net zero. Secondly, courses are being delivered in new building techniques and emerging technologies in colleges. Thirdly, the current large number of sustainability accreditations are being mapped and gaps identified where training is needed. A fourth priority is to translate carbon offsetting and academic work into practical accounting tools to help small businesses.

Finally, there is an aim of attracting more young people into sustainable construction careers through the funding of such partnerships as Daydream Believers, a group aiming to put creativity at the heart of education to encourage innovation.

‘Huge changes taking place’

Ms Connell-Skinner explains: “We’re keen on working with partners to inspire more and different types of young people to work in construction. There is a bit of a risk that people might see construction as a carbon intensive career because it is a high-carbon emitter at the moment. But that also means construction is a place where huge changes are taking place in terms of how the climate crisis is being tackled. We’re doing lots with partners, such as developing courses on building better with timber which is a great material for saving carbon.”

And she adds that there are different aspects the construction industry needs to consider when it comes to decarbonising. One side is the materials that are used, such as moving away from carbon-intensive materials like concrete and steel in new buildings, to the likes of timber. Another is looking at how buildings are demolished or re-used by taking a circular economy approach. And decisions have to be made on construction methods, for example by making more use of modular techniques where timber-framed houses are constructed in factories and moved to sites. This is already more common in Scotland than some other parts of the UK where there is more reliance on bricks in house building.

While the scale of the skills gap challenge for construction is clear, Ms Connell-Skinner concludes: “There are huge opportunities when it comes to future jobs.”

Sign up for our free event

To discover more about Scotland’s green skills future, book your place at the Scotsman’s Green Skills conference 2022 on Tuesday, October 4, here.

Find out more at www.hciskills.org