How to help bridge the skills gap in construction

How to help bridge the skills gap in construction

Dave Hall, Training Partnerships Director for British Gypsum, talks about what needs to be done to help bridge the skills gap in construction.

Although lack of skills is an industry-wide issue, for specialist trades, such as drylining installation and plastering, the numbers of youngsters entering are critically low. For five consecutive years skilled construction trades topped the list of the hardest positions to fill, according to the Manpower Group Talent Shortage Survey, and plasterers are a major part of the gap.

Having an ageing workforce is a huge drawback for construction; around 22 per cent on site today are over 50, with 15 per cent in their 60s and ready to retire. To make matters worse, only 30 per cent of construction diploma students actually go on to work in the industry, and this is where the other real problem lies.

Many students are reluctant to complete the three years to gain the advanced skills Level 3 diploma, instead leaving after two years with a Level 2. There’s little incentive to continue studying and limited financial support available from firms or the government to do so. The impact is companies find those leaving college with the lower level don’t have the full breadth of skills to pitch up and work on site; most students don’t have onsite practical experience during the first two years and haven’t developed all of the competencies necessary to work independently on site.

There’s also a marked difference in the quality of training provided and a lack of consistency on how students are assessed. Combined, this results in plasterers receiving a qualification without the technical skills to do the job on-site day to day. Through our academy training centres and partnerships with schools and colleges we’re trying to tackle these two critical factors. We opened our first academy in 1966 and have provided over 500,000 days of training to installers, contractors and suppliers. We work with the Sector Skills Council for construction, the CITB and qualification awarding bodies to develop qualifications that meet employers’ needs, so workers have the right skills to keep pace with modern methods of construction. We also regularly review and develop our course content to keep up with regulatory changes.

To tackle the gap in skills for those who’ve already completed a level 2 or foundation course, but don’t have the practical skills or confidence to work on site, we developed a short-term site-ready skimming course that is now available with training partners across England. The six-week course is designed to develop practical skills and provide trainees with the confidence to get straight to work as plastering skimmers. Of the 110 students who’ve completed this course so far, more than 90 per cent are already working in the industry. A key success factor of this course is in giving the trainees the room to learn; large training bays and even bigger stretch and challenge walls, so they can consistently apply a high-quality finish over larger areas, which is how they’ll make a living when they get to site.

Forging close links with further education colleges to support new tradespeople is crucial to ensure lecturers and tutors are up to date with knowledge and skills development to give apprentices and students the best start to a career within plastering and drylining systems. For us engaging with schools and colleges is a really effective way to encourage more young people into a career in construction. However, there’s still so much more that can be done to educate pupils – and their parents and teachers – about what job options are available and what a career in construction can actually look like.

Since 2013 we’ve supported 6,911 apprentices thanks to our established collaboration with 57 Thistle Partnership Colleges across the UK. This year, despite there being many challenges in the physical delivery of courses, we’re supporting 763 apprentices to successfully complete courses. This is significantly above the national average for this year which is down 40 per cent on the previous one.

Because of the restrictions this year, we switched a lot of our learning resources and presentations online so colleges can access them during lockdown. We’ve also been running live virtual sessions and made resources available through the learning hub on our website.

The skills shortage continues to plague the industry. It’s vital we develop, and fund, an educational framework that delivers the skills needed. But more importantly, we must continue to look for ways to inspire the next generation of builders and plasterers into the industry. Following the Sainsbury review, the introduction of T levels for on-site construction from September 2021 will now have a route for vocational training in bringing people into construction, which should help to address the skills shortage and is widely welcomed by the construction industry.

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