Overcoming skills shortages by working smarter in construction

Marius Stäcker
4 March, 24

According to 2023 research by Kingfisher, the owners of Screwfix and B&Q, the UK will face a shortfall of 250,000 tradespeople by 2030, with one in five UK consumers already cancelling or postponing projects due to a lack of skilled professionals. This shortage of skilled tradespeople means that businesses need to become more efficient if they want to be able to take advantage of the available work and scale up.

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘work smarter, not harder’. And whilst it’s not about cutting corners or diluting an outcome, it is about producing more with less effort, creating efficiencies where you can and being more considered with the resources you do have. Digitisation can hold the key to this.

Famously, construction has been an industry resistant to technological change, with an ‘if it ain’t broke,’ mentality prevailing as other sectors hustle to embrace the digital. But in the face of these widening skills shortages, a depleting workforce, mounting financial pressures and rising labour costs, all this must change, with digitisation offering a direct route to efficiency. Indeed, research shows that the tide may finally be turning, with more than 80% of UK construction companies now citing digital transformation as a key priority for the coming years.

The lay of the land: Understanding the industry’s skills shortage

The skills shortage in construction has been looming over the industry for some years, even as demand for tradespeople and their services continues to grow. More than a third of UK homeowners are planning to make improvements to their homes this year, and younger people have become more reliant on these skilled workers than previous generations. However, the lack of skilled workers threatens to hamper this growth. Shortages will impact the successful start and completion of projects to deadline.

The industry is currently being confronted with an ‘unholy trinity’ of factors contributing to this shortage – the first being a shrinking older workforce following a rise in early retirement. According to data, much of the current workforce sits within the 50 to 64 age bracket, and 23% of construction companies are hiring just to fill the gaps created by recent retirees.

Whilst The Construction Products Association (CPA) has been sounding the alarm to this ticking age bomb for some time, it was the pandemic – forcing workers to take a step back and reevaluate their lifestyles – that lit the fuse. But, the shortages are set to widen still as the industry is predicted to lose approximately a quarter of its workforce (around 500,000 tradespeople) over the next 10 to 15 years.

It’s worth noting here, too, that this concentration of older workers may well play a role in the sector’s resistance to digitisation to date. They are typically less tech-savvy than younger peers and may not have an understanding of the technologies available to them, which presents an opportunity for those who do eventually replace them.

Second is the effect of Brexit and the departure of thousands of skilled EU tradespeople from the UK. Interestingly, these workers were most concentrated in the 25 – 34 age bracket, which further accounts for an industry heavily weighted toward an older demographic. This loss emphasises the need to attract new talent but the industry may struggle as it continues to navigate an image problem.

Building back and building better – a digital dawn for the industry

Combatting all of the above is a long-term goal that requires the cooperation, commitment and buy-in of the UK government to implement initiatives around recruitment in the sector, such as education and outreach and diversity and inclusion initiatives if we are to build back Britain’s construction industry.

However, there are still things that construction companies can do right now to combat the issue. Here’s where ‘working smarter’ enters the picture.

As pen-and-paper and even basic Word and Excel methods become a thing of the past, digitisation offers a foolproof roadmap to efficient operations. Job management tools that help streamline administrative activity and create better synergies between field workers and the office can help construction firms make better use of the resources and workers they do have. This in turn helps reduce paperwork, boost productivity and free up time that can be invested back into the business to serve more customers and meet growing demand – even in the face of a small skilled workforce.

Additionally, implementing cloud software that enables employees to work and communicate effectively from anywhere can help construction companies widen their talent pools since they’re able to hire workers from various locations. With less need for entire teams to come together, or for managers to be physically present on-site, employees can be managed and work overseen, even from a distance. This in turn can help expand service areas, as jobs can be found and booked in areas near the company’s remote workers.

By incorporating simple digital tools to help automate things like invoice generation, quotations, and job reporting, it’s possible to save around 30% on precious working time. In streamlining operations, workers are then free to take on more work by reducing time spent on arduous admin tasks and more effectively planning jobs that are already on the books. Their employers may also be more likely to win over potential clients as they’re able to submit quotes faster, beating out the competition.

All that extra time can also give construction workers the hours they need to re-invest in young talent, whether it’s offering apprenticeships to school leavers, or work experience to those slightly younger. Not only this, but getting a handle on digitisation can help improve companies’ overall marketing efforts, enabling them not only to help reach a wider pool of customers, but workers too. Whilst these measures might seem small, they can be mighty in effect and will help slowly but surely reinvigorate the construction talent pool and bridge the industry’s skills gap.

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