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Skills shortage could threaten the future of the construction industry as fewer young people join the sector say Kent bosses and colleges

By Chris Price

The construction sector could be reaching "the point of no return" if more young people do not join the industry, according to Kent bosses and colleges.

While children were excitedly unwrapping their Christmas presents last year, engineers at Network Rail were looking at their watches.

Enduring the wettest winter since 1910, they had been tasked with the renovation of Gravesend train station, adding a new platform and a new bridge.

The new footbridge being installed at Gravesend train station

The job was estimated to take 90 days, a figure which was no good for big bosses, who needed the site up and running again as people went back to work after the holidays.

The solution was to devise a 4D virtual construction plan, allowing various trades and disciplines to work on the project seamlessly 24/7 over 15 days.

Despite severe gales and the stormiest winter in 20 years, the project was completed on time just after dawn on Monday, January 6.

Network Rail senior project director David Lindsay said: “It’s the young people who can change this, not me.

Network Rail used 4G virtual construction plans at Gravesend station to get three months' work done in 15 days

“It’s their years of experience with X-Box. Gravesend couldn’t have been achieved if not for construction people showing what is possible in 15 days.

“When things went wrong, we looked at the 4D plan and altered how we were going to approach it, meaning we still got the job done on time.

“That was driven by people challenging the norms of the industry and that is what we need to come through. We need to nurture talent in the industry.”

However there is a problem. Not enough people are coming through, with the average age of an engineer in the UK being 56.

Construction boss with apprentices. Picture: iStock.com

“We are almost beyond the point of no return,” said Mark Syrett, southern regional business manager of JTL, a charity which manages training for the electrical, plumbing, heating and engineering sectors.

“We have an ageing workforce. That is a significant issue.”

Mr Syrett was speaking at a conference organised by the Constructing Excellence Kent Club, looking at how the industry can deal with the lack of interest from young people.

“There’s a growing realisation within the construction industries that they are going to run out of talent,” said Lauren Anning, director of development at Kent Association of Further Education Colleges (KAFEC), who co-hosted the event.

Construction industry bosses gathered at the Constructing Excellence Kent Club meeting to discuss the shortage of skills

“There is still a view that it’s about brick laying and low-level trades. There are people in this industry with a massive skill set, but that message doesn’t get out to parents, carers and schools.

“This event is the first part of driving forward that agenda.”

Frustration is felt throughout the sector, often directed at schools.

“Teachers don’t seem to be promoting the trades or professions” said Cheryl Causebook, business development manager at Ashford-based Epps Construction.

Cheryl Causebrook from Epps Construction

“There are more than 150 different professions involved in buying a piece of land and maintaining a building once it’s complete and there is a skills shortage in all of them.

“All schools seem to do is promote the trades to kids who are not academic enough to go to university.

“They should be promoting construction to people who are academic because they can do roles like surveying, management and engineering.

“But they are not being promoted in the slightest. Don’t even go there with women in construction. I visited a grammar school and all they wanted to do was admin.”

"Don’t even go there with women in construction. I visited a grammar school and all they wanted to do was admin...” - Epps' Cheryl Causebrook

East Kent College director Nicholas Holbrook-Sutcliffe says the solution is to make it clearer the variety of roles available – and how much money they can earn.

That will then benefit the wider Kent economy.

He said: “If you look at construction in our college, half of it is clean. Half of students don’t get dirty. We have the wet trades but the engineering of a house and planning are clean. Don’t look at construction as purely construction.

“They will go into the industry if you sell the experience, the fact they will be trained to higher education level and the amount they can earn.

“Then if they stay in the industry, they will grow local companies and that creates wealth. I know it sounds simplistic, but it really is that simple. If you keep the strongest people in the industries you want to grow, then they will grow quicker.”

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