Staff Discussions: Skills Shortages in the Construction Industry

04 Jan 2018

RPS Senior Project Manager Kuli Bajwa recently participated in an industry Round Table discussion to consider the challenges posed by skilled staff shortages in the construction industry (see Construction Industry Skills Shortage Impacts Go Beyond Recruitment). The insightful comments made in the event transcript reveal a valuable behind-the-scenes view into how the industry is experiencing and addressing skill shortages. We asked Kuli to chat a bit more with us about her experiences of skill shortages in the industry.

A lack of appropriately skilled staff coming into the industry has been noted as a key concern for several years, with particular gaps in the market being identified in the number of new graduates and trainees joining the industry, and in the number of women entering the industry.

Kuli joined RPS in 2015 from a background as a Chartered Building Surveyor with Bond Bryan and then with Rider Levett Bucknall having initially achieved a First in Building Surveying from Leeds Metropolitan University in 2012. Her placement year was spent with Transport for Greater Manchester.

1. Why did you choose building surveying initially? Did anything in particular inspire you?

I have always been interested in architecture and intrigued in how buildings are constructed however I had no idea that I would end up studying Building Surveying at University – it happened as if by chance! During sixth form [UK Further Education for 16-18 year-olds] I helped to raise money for charity towards building a school in Africa for children from a community which faced inequality and poverty, the school helped to transform a whole community. This really inspired me and allowed me to appreciate how the construction industry can help transform communities and create opportunities for all. I began to carry out my own research into the various construction career paths and decided to take up building surveying because of the wide range of skills it offered and the professional MRICS status that I could one day achieve once I graduated and gained experience.

2. What experience did you gain during your placement year and how did it help you in your degree course? Also what key skills did you gain from it that you can now apply effectively to your career?

My placement provided an insight into the real world of management and the construction industry. It provided me with a chance to put my skills into action, which allowed me to develop as a young professional. I believe that I achieved a better final degree because of the knowledge I gained during my year out, which contributed towards my dissertation. I also improved my time management skills which helped me prioritise and manage workloads at university whilst working a part time job.

Amongst the essential skills that I have gained and that I still apply today is being able to demonstrate my interpersonal skills. During my placement I was able to communicate effectively and participate in team projects and at times took the lead. I was able to advance my self-reliance skills, demonstrating that I could work independently and became self-aware of knowing what my strengths and weaknesses were which allowed me to organise myself and prioritise commitments. I also learned how to schedule – and protect – my time and have the confidence to ask for support and help when needed.

3. The issue of few women entering careers in the construction industry has been focused on in popular media. Did you find there was a fairly even gender balance on your degree course, and what do you think may influence the numbers of women taking up degree courses in surveying?

No, there wasn’t an even gender balance on my degree course – to put this into perspective, there were four females out of a group of thirty!

Times are changing and the rate at which women are embarking on careers in construction is improving but the uptake is still fairly slow compared to other industries such as law and finance. There is a longstanding perception that the construction industry is male-dominated. By acknowledging women’s achievements we can inspire other women to join our industry and help transform public perception making it more accessible for women.

4. Do you think that the avenues into careers in the construction consultancy are promoted adequately and are approachable enough to attract new people?

As an industry I do believe we offer great career packages for the young generation which offer job training and career development opportunities through apprenticeships, placements, graduate schemes and mentoring. In order to engage adequately we should strengthen our links with schools and colleges and promote technology when pitching construction and emphasise the many opportunities within our industry ranging from architecture to contractor.

In order to engage with a wider audience we should focus on understanding the drivers that motivate people to want to join the construction industry, reach out to those groups that might not normally be attracted to a career in construction and create multiple entry points with fast track opportunities. Not only do we need to redefine the image of construction but also create and explore attractive and innovative work environments, which actively promote work-life balance, flexibility and provide purposefulness.

5. During the Round Table discussion you mention in-house training as a way of retaining staff. If improved, this could go a long way to solving retention issues for many companies but what are your thoughts on filling the overall skills gap? Do we need to put more time and thought into building relationships with schools and colleges – how far should this go?

Evidence shows that businesses that invest in their staff are far more likely to survive an economic downturn than those that don’t. To help fill this gap companies need to invest in training and education engagement. Businesses should focus on up-skilling their existing employees, create new opportunities for the younger generation through apprenticeships and encourage employees to understand and appreciate how their wider business operates to allow them to fully integrate themselves into the business.

When it comes to education engagement I think we should reach out as far as we possibly can to build strong relationships with schools and colleges. I am not just proposing visiting a school or college to talk through a presentation, what I am proposing is to physically show schools and colleges what our industry is all about by arranging more site visits, architecture studio tours, exhibit BIM modelling and allowing them to interact with new innovative technologies. Our industry is exciting and we need to be able to express this in a way which is appealing to the younger generation in order to capture their interest.

6. How can we promote more women in construction?

Promote our female role models! I do believe that times are changing and more women are emerging into the construction industry but we can do more to promote this. As a young woman myself I look up to the women role models in the construction industry such as Louise Brooke-Smith and Amanda Clack both of whom have been elected as Global Presidents of the RICS and I feel inspired by the women that I work with. By acknowledging women’s achievements we can inspire other women to follow and help transform and adapt to public perception.

7. In the Round Table discussion you mentioned the issue of ‘poaching’ in the industry, where firms try to attract senior staff from other businesses rather than commit expenditure to recruiting newer faces and providing suitable training. What especial pitfalls and benefits do these two choices offer?

The advantages of recruiting young people and providing suitable training is that employees become more competent at their jobs and this increases productivity and can encourage motivation. They feel a sense of commitment from their employer and they can grow organically with the firm’s culture. The pitfall to this, possibly the biggest is that once fully trained, employees may leave for better paid jobs and the financial cost of training may be expensive.

The advantages of ‘poaching’ is that the senior member of staff will already have knowledge of the industry, the business, and can bring valuable new knowledge and even clients to a firm. The drawback to this is unrealistic salary expectations, although the experienced may not always have the type of experience required for the particular role; and your competitors may do the same and poach your employees!

The crux of it is that you need to treat your employees well, regardless of how they have been recruited, so you don’t give them a reason to leave!

8. How is your team working to address skills shortage in recruitment?

We are tackling the skills shortage in recruitment by promoting our industry through career fairs, creating strong links with schools and colleges and offering a wide variety of entry points into the firm. We are also providing regular job training and career development opportunities for new and existing employees. Our team avoid micromanaging and encourage employees in the decision making process to create a positive work environment.

9. Do you have any career highlights thus far?

Project managing Birmingham’s tallest PRS scheme, gaining my MRICS and winning the RPS Birmingham sports day!

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