Farmer Review: we need a multiskilled workforce

3 min read

While it’s fair to say the industry response to the Farmer Review has been mixed, I personally welcome Mark Farmer’s recent review of the state of the construction industry.

He challenged both the industry and government to reform construction so we’re fit to meet the challenges of delivering the major infrastructure schemes this country badly needs, such as HS2 and the imminent decision on airport expansion, and consequently bring more people into the industry.

But we shouldn’t read the Farmer Review in isolation; this report chimes with other industry reports including the recent National Needs Assessment and reinforces points raised by Build UK and other industry bodies: our industry is facing a massive skills shortage and we will need an additional 250,000 construction workers and 150,000 engineers by 2020.

We know the scale of the challenge, but we can’t tackle the problem either as individual businesses or indeed wait for government to fix the problems for us. We need to work together – industry and government, because it’s not just about whether or not we can deliver the projects. If UK construction can’t deliver, ultimately it will be the whole economy that will suffer.

This isn’t going to be easy. The industry must work together: clients, contractors and the supply chain, and we are completing with a host of other industries that are viewed in a better light than construction. Despite the banking crisis and the bad rap that bankers get, many young people would still consider a career in finance above construction. Mark’s right to focus on the work that needs to be done to change the perception of a career in construction. We need a wholesale approach – from primary school, through to the subjects pupils choose at GCSE and A-Levels, through to addressing the preconceptions of careers advisers and parents – and we need work with industry bodies on a national campaign to achieve this.

And once we get the people into the industry, we need to give them the right training and be willing to share them amongst companies, not fight over them. I believe that we need to be training a multi-skilled workforce and grouping trades, rather than workers having a single skillset. The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy next year is an opportunity for the industry to look at how we train people coming into construction and reform the system so its fit for the future – we need to decide how we want to invest in people and influence what the training looks like, rather than waiting for others to do it for us.

To that end, if there’s an area where the Farmer Review didn’t go far enough, it would be that the references to the role of industry bodies was too limited to just the Construction Leadership Council and the CITB. These are not the only industry bodies and indeed they don’t represent the whole of the industry and the solution will need a wider reach.

We could see this as just another report, reconfirming the issues the industry has faced for many years. But we need to meet the challenges head-on – from reforming the training we offer young people to tackling the preconceptions of the industry. It’s a hard nut to crack; clients must play an important role and recognise they have a role to play. I am confident the industry has the will and the impetus to work together to take action and ensure UK construction has a bright future and will deliver our property and infrastructure needs.

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