London’s construction skills shortage makes innovation more urgent than ever

Modular housing in Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

London’s construction industry is struggling to attract and retain the workers it needs. And this is a huge problem: skills shortages are driving up the high cost of building in the capital, and contributing to the poor quality of workmanship in the construction sector.

This crisis is manifold. The UK’s construction workforce ageing, with one in ten workers estimated to leave the sector in the next nine years. It’s also at huge risk from Brexit, with almost a third of London’s ‘construction of buildings’ workforce from the EU, compared to just 10 per cent in the rest of the UK. Last week, the Migration Advisory Committee’s report on EEA workers recommended a salary threshold of £30,000 for high and medium skilled EEA workers in the future, with no explicit work migration route for low-skilled workers, and no introduction of regional variation.

But it’s not just the prospect of losing EU workers that the industry needs to be concerned about: more workers are leaving the profession than entering already. In 2017 alone, twice as many workers left the construction industry as joined it, a trend projected to worsen over the next few years. This is despite demand for on-site occupations outstripping levels of current employment: recent findings from the Greater London Authority indicate that demand for plant mechanics, scaffolders and bricklayers exceeded 300 per cent of 2015 employment levels.

Meanwhile, despite the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017, London has a consistently low number of construction apprenticeship starts, with take-up declining by almost 50 per cent in the five years to 2016, even as need has intensified. A recent survey of apprenticeship leavers by the Construction Industry Training Board found that over a third cited low pay and slow career development as reasons behind leaving.

So how can the construction sector inspire its current workforce, but also encourage the next generation of workers to come forward? With the construction industry in desperate need of a pipeline of younger and skilled employees, it’s time for the sector to embrace Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).


MMC, also known as modular housing or off-site construction, have the potential to deliver housing much quicker than traditional construction methods, as well as provide cost savings, greater certainty and achieve higher quality. Modular techniques will create jobs for a range of skills, engineers and surveyors as well as low skilled jobs on-site. This might entice would-be apprentices who could be put off by low pay and a lack of personal development opportunities.

But the transition to widespread adoption of off-site construction to date has been slow. A step change in developing the skills to take it on will be needed to ensure MMC can be a part of the solution to London’s housing crisis.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has demonstrated his commitment to improve skills in the sector through the Mayor’s Construction Academy (MCA), which includes supporting the development of training provision for the construction of precision manufactured housing. Taking this forward, the mayor should consider how to use devolved skills funding to help existing construction workers develop the new skills required to implement MMC. Now is the time for developers and the wider industry to start investing their workers, upskilling them to future-proof housebuilding in the city.

Amy Leppanen is communications officer at the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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