Region’s housebuilders ‘waking up’ to skills shortage as demand for new homes rises

The Federation of Master Builders is warning that skills shortages could soon become the biggest bar

The Federation of Master Builders is warning that skills shortages could soon become the biggest barrier to growth for small housebuilders. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

The construction industry in East Anglia is 'waking up' to a chronic shortage of skilled staff following a decade of under-investment in training.

Pic: Archant Norfolk

Pic: Archant Norfolk

According to the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) the lack of talent – which many say is being exacerbated by the UK's decision to leave the European Union – leaves the country at risk of missing its housebuilding targets.

Almost half of small house builders (44%) polled for the FMB's House Builders' Survey 2018 said the shortage of skilled workers was a major barrier to their ability to build more new homes.

Looking ahead over the next three years, more firms cited skills shortages as a likely barrier to growth than access to finance.

Jason Ramsey, managing director of Bateman Groundworks in Little Plumstead near Norwich, believes the seeds were sown for the industry's talent shortage after the financial crash, which left many housebuilding schemes dead in the water.

'After 2008 we saw a reduction in intake of new, younger employees because the workload diminished quite heavily and rapidly. But at the same time we saw a lot of older, more experienced staff leaving the industry and what we have found coming out of that recession, since about 2012, is that it left a deficit in the industry and we really had to push on recruitment,' he said.

'The construction industry is waking up to the shortage of skills and the need to bring the younger generation in.'

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Bob Weston, chairman and chief executive of Essex-based Weston Homes, said the constriction of the European talent pipeline caused by Brexit, combined with the increasing demand for new homes, would force housebuilders to reconsider their recruitment strategies.

Lovell's site at Heath Farm, Holt. The regional housebuilder is among those which is investing heavi

Lovell's site at Heath Farm, Holt. The regional housebuilder is among those which is investing heavily in training to counteract talent shortages. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

'The challenge facing construction is that the starter homes market is booming, we have hundreds of homes we need to build, this requires more staff, and with Brexit, we need young domestic UK employees to come into the sector,' he said.

'Weston Homes alone needs 350 new employees, and the other big housebuilders are in the same situation, so there's a need for hundreds and hundreds of people.

'The key challenge is persuading young people from the UK that the construction industry is a superb place to work. Some are dissuaded to join due to outdated perceptions of the sector.'

READ MORE: Construction firms' plea to EU workers

Investing in training is 'the only real answer'

Regional housebuilder Lovell is among those trying to change the image of construction through engagement with schools and colleges.

The company, which has its regional base at Broadland Business Park, received the Investing in Future Growth award at the EDP Business Awards 2017 for its investment in staff training.

It took on six apprentices in East Anglia last year and is currently interviewing for a further four, as well as continuing its work with education providers.

Regional managing director Simon Medler said the skills shortage was causing 'genuine problems' for some businesses.

'The only real answer is that we all have to keep investing in training. Bringing new people into the industry has always been central to Lovell's business strategy and has played a pivotal role in our continuing expansion and ability to deliver the homes which are needed across the region,' he said.

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Apprenticeship programme helping business growth

Bateman Groundworks feels it was ahead of the curve on apprenticeships. It set up an apprenticeship programme in 2013, as the talent shortage was starting to bite for many construction firms.

The company currently has 31 apprentices on board with 12 more lined up to start their two-year programme with the firm this autumn.

Managing director Jason Ramsey said that though apprenticeships were a 'big investment' for the company, the apprenticeship levy and government funding made it viable.

'The issue is awareness of the funding facility,' he said. 'I understand there are a large amount of SMEs who are not using it fully.'

Bateman currently trains its apprentices through the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) in West Norfolk, but Mr Ramsey said there were 'contingencies' in place in the event that the training facility closes when the organisation moves its head office to Peterborough.