IT is often said there’s no better indicator of a city’s prosperity than construction cranes dotted on its skyline.
In fact, the building industry has long been considered a bellwether of wider economic performance – being one of the first sectors to suffer the effects of a recession and one of the first to show signs of recovery.
The fortunes of Scotland’s construction firms illustrate this trend dramatically. Businesses faced a huge task in weathering the economic downturn, with employment in the sector having declined by 13 per cent since 2009, compared with two per cent for Scotland as a whole.
This was felt most keenly by the SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and micro-businesses which dominate the industry, with the downturn resulting in further industry fragmentation as more people moved into self-employment.
Now, as the economic outlook improves, construction firms are looking to capitalise on new opportunities. However, they face a growing problem in sourcing the skills they need.
It is against this background that Skills Development Scotland (SDS) is launching a Skills Investment Plan for Scotland’s Construction Sector.
The development of this plan has been led by industry itself, with an extensive programme of consultation taking place with employers, industry bodies such as the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), trade associations, public sector agencies, universities, colleges and local authorities.
Priorities for action include maintaining core skills ranging from joinery and bricklaying to plant operation and site management, while enhancing new skills such as building information modelling.
The number of people starting apprenticeships in construction and related frameworks has risen from 3,348 in 2009-10 to 4,435 in 2013-14, and this trend needs to continue if skills shortages are to be reduced. There is also an increasing demand for higher-level apprenticeships.
At the same time, a UK Commission for Employment and Skills survey found that 18 per cent of construction companies offered neither training nor wider development opportunities, which is above the 11 per cent average for companies in general.
The Skills Investment Plan offers a framework for action based around four main themes: attracting future talent to the industry; upskilling the existing workforce; modernising training programmes; and providing the skills needed for future growth.
A great deal is already being done to attract future talent. With the involvement of the CITB, a pilot programme which will see senior school students completing parts of a construction apprenticeship while still in the classroom will start in the new academic year.
Research being carried out by Equate Scotland – who work to improve access for women to careers in science, technology, engineering and the built environment – will also help inform policies aimed at removing barriers to entering the construction sector, creating a more diverse workforce.
This will be underpinned by enhanced careers information, advice and guidance in every Scottish secondary school, along with our award-winning web service My World of Work, which now has more than 500,000 registered users, helping career influencers such as parents as well as potential new entrants themselves.
SDS will work with industry bodies and trade associations to stimulate demand for upskilling the existing workforce, helping to develop those technical skills needed for competitiveness and innovation.
For employers, the challenge is to grasp these opportunities so that current skills shortages can be addressed, innovation can be fostered and a greater flexibility can be built into the sector which will allow it to respond to future challenges.
According to the Office of National Statistics, construction industry output grew by 7.3 per cent in 2014, and with many firms reporting a similarly positive start to 2015, taking the right steps now will allow firms to capitalise on the growth opportunities that lie ahead.
Our partners including colleges and training providers will be central to these efforts, making training more accessible and flexible while capturing new skills such as low-carbon construction which are increasingly in demand.
There are already many firms who lead by example. Orkney Builders have invested in young people through the Employability Fund, taken on Modern Apprentices, and forged links with schools.
A wide range of industry bodies are also behind the plan. Ed Monaghan, Chair of Construction Scotland and Chief Executive of Mactaggart & Mickel, said: “By engaging with the themes of the action plan, employers and businesses have the potential to help Scotland’s Construction Sector become more innovative and dynamic.
“More young people will view construction as an exciting career option, current industry professionals will see a wider range of career opportunities, and businesses will have the skills and flexibility they need to react to the changing economic landscape and to anticipate future demand.”
• Gordon McGuinness is Depute Director of Industry and Enterprise Networks, Skills Development Scotland skillsdevelopmentscotland.co.uk