Construction, a term that encompasses activities related to the creation of physical infrastructure and related activities plays a crucial role in the economy of any country. It has been estimated that output of the sector comprises a significant share of 40 to 60 percent of gross fixed capital formation. The sector also plays a pivotal role in the delivery of national socio-economic development goals through the provision of shelter, employment and infrastructure. According to the latest statistics revealed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), construction output in UK fell by 0.8% during the three month rolling period to August 2017 due to a decline in private commercial work and public new work. The ONS has reported that this is the fourth consecutive month of the fall in construction output. This raises the question: what are some of the challenges that the industry is facing?
Current Challenges Faced by the Construction Industry
The construction industry faces a number of challenges today. Firstly, like most other sectors in the economy, the construction industry also faces challenges in an increasingly automated world. The industry is facing a wave of innovative and yet potentially disruptive technologies. The processes that are applied to construct buildings are incorporating novel manufacturing processes that endangers jobs requiring traditional dexterity.
Secondly and most importantly, automation requires a labour force that has a skill set to work with new technologies and new manufacturing methods. This poses a big challenge: with the sector traditionally dependent on migrant labour inflow from the European Union, how will it cope after the onset of Brexit when the UK leaves the European Union? Attracting the best talent, retaining the current labour force and upgrading skill sets to meet the demands of the future remain key trials that the industry faces.
Skills Shortage Conference
These challenges remained the highlight of the recent conference 'Skills Shortage in Construction: Building the Future Post Brexit' organized by the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, UCL in collaboration with History and Policy on Oct 5, 2017. The conference brought together eminent historians, academics, civil servants and practitioners to discuss the current challenges the construction industry faces and find areas where proactive policy can robustly respond to challenges and ensure that the sector achieves its full potential.
The conference was divided into four panels which focused on the skills shortage in the industry in a historical context, requisite training and skills post Brexit, state and the construction industry and technological change in the industry. The first panel took a long run view of the construction industry and analysed it in historical context in comparison with countries such as Germany in terms of crucial vocational education and training (VET) skills. It also analyzed how projects were sourced two to three centuries earlier. Presentations also included studying the case of the Great Fire and how 17th century institutions and processes rebuilt London's infrastructure with rapidity.
The second panel focused on skills shortage in today's world especially post Brexit. With much of the skills deficit historically covered by migrant labour, Brexit poses difficult challenges to the construction industry. This panel focused on the threats and opportunities that construction faces post Brexit. It also discussed government's industrial strategy aiming to increase investment to improve productivity and economic growth across UK. It also stressed in the need to critically think about the effectiveness of existing educational and training arrangements to meet skills shortages in the future. In fact, this point was heavily emphasized as the third panel also continued to stress on the need to build educational and vocational skills to lead the construction industry in the future.
The last session focused on how the industry is being automated in today's world using digital tools for manufacturing design and assembly. It also focused on the implications that automation would have on the nature of professional work and the education, demand and supply of construction professionals.
The construction industry involves multiple players and stakeholders and is therefore intricately linked to various aspects of the society. To address some of the key challenges it faces today requires input from experts belonging to a variety of disciplines. The skills shortage conference was a great attempt at bringing together experts ranging from historians, engineers, architects, policy makers and academics on a single platform and having an informed and insightful debate on some of the pertinent issues and their solutions that the construction industry faces today.