As Chairman of Construction Sector Innovation and Digital Adoption, within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, PJ Rudden tells Irish building magazine that a matter of great concern to him is the skills gap within the construction industry.
This has been studied in detail and the full requirements laid out in a Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment report dated September 2020 entitled, ‘Building Future Skills: The Demand for Skills in Ireland’s Built Environment Sector to 2030.’ While the supply of skills relevant to digital disruption of the sector is particularly pertinent at the moment, there are clearly broader issues that must be tackled if we are to ensure that the construction industry in Ireland can fulfill the increasing demands that will be made on it by major infrastructure projects, and deep retrofitting to conform to EU directives.
Why is there a skills gap?
Before we look at the various areas this skills gap impacts on, let us first consider the reasons for it. As the level of construction activity in Ireland has grown rapidly over recent years, the industry has struggled to fill crucial roles. If we look back to the last economic crash, in the wake of the global financial crisis, significant numbers of Irish workers had to emigrate or retrain, and many have not returned. There are long-term implications from this decline in numbers, as many will never return, either to Ireland or the industry, with the ripple effect being a lack of middle management level workers with 10-15 years’ experience.
People have long memories, and the impact of that crash still resonates, with the construction sector not being seen as an attractive option to school-leavers. The ‘Building Future Skills’ report conducted many interviews with stakeholders within the industry and it was noted that they “attributed current problems facing the sector in terms of labour and skills shortages to the volatility of the past decade, in particular the contraction of public investment after the 2008 financial crash—this compounded the effect of the collapse of the private construction market in subsequent years. Many stakeholders noted the importance of a steady level of public investment to stabilise the sector during recessions when private sector demand is relatively low.”
Still today, there is poor uptake of built environment-related craft apprenticeships and spare capacity in many Higher Education courses, which is a cause for concern that even now we are not attracting enough new entrants to the sector. Some of the issues that may be off-putting to students include the perceptions of low wages compared to sectors such as IT, the nature of building sites, and in terms of craft apprenticeships, their perceived lower status compared to a university degree course.
The industry is still struggling to catch up, with issues such as high levels of construction inflation, extended tender periods due to lack of bids, and delays in securing sufficient consultants and contractors for projects, all indicative of the problems created by the skills gap.
We are beginning to see a renewed focus on education and training to supply the construction sector, but it is making up for the post-recession period where education providers had shifted attention and resources towards other sectors—now we see that we need to ramp up the capacity again.
There is also an onus on the industry to move with the times and embrace the new technologies, with the up-skilling this requires. However, even more crucial is ensuring that roles are filled within the industry first. According to the 2019 National Skills Bulletin, 11 occupations relevant to the built environment, were identified as being in short supply in 2019, namely: Civil Engineers, Construction Project Managers, Quantity Surveyors, Carpenters, Glaziers, Steel Erectors/fixers, Curtain Wallers, Scaffolders, Pipe Layers, Electricians and Construction Site Drivers.
A study conducted for the ‘Building Future Skills’ report found that Quantity Surveyors, BIM Operators/Experts and Mechanical or Electrical Engineers were the most difficult to recruit. Further-more, demand for these roles within built environment activities is expected to increase with technological and environmental trends. According to Engineers Ireland, Electrical, Electronic, Mechanical and Manufacturing accounted for 83% of the demand for engineering skills within the Construction sector in 2019.
Project Ireland 2040
The Government has committed to a number of large infrastructure projects through Project Ireland 2040, which includes the National Planning Framework Project Ireland 2040 and the National Development Plan 2018-2027—and this will increase the demand for workers in this sector.
Public expenditure decisions over the coming years will also influence the broader needs of the industry—the big projects that government plans to spend money on will impact on the numbers and types of workers needed. Policies aimed at increasing the housing supply, maximising strategic development zones and increasing the level of high-density development will all have an effect on the industry at large.
Given that the built environment workforce has skills that are transferable across infrastructural, commercial and residential projects for many sectors, any one particular project may compete for the skilled workforce within this pool, and several large scale projects running concurrently could place enormous pressure on the supply of skilled workers.
By 2040, it is projected that the population of Ireland will have risen by 1 million people. With Project Ireland 2040, the Government has put in place an overarching strategy for development, planning and infrastructure to ensure that we are on track to cater for this extra population. It looks to create not just ‘sufficient’ building and infrastructure, but quality build that offers a good standard of living.
During my time as Director of the EU Commission Secretariat for the European Green Capital initiative, I worked with a large number of cities around Europe. We looked at what makes a good quality of life—how to plan so that people have public transport within 300m of their front door, the opportunity to raise a family with local amenities, and of course, access to clean air and water. This is all human stuff, and I would argue that emotional intelligence and what are called ‘soft skills’ are also crucial to create good infrastructure. If the people involved in the creation of our built environment have empathy for the people and families who will rely on and live inside the buildings, it will help to elevate the quality of design and construction.
Government legislation around carbon reduction and energy use and commitments to addressing climate change, led by the EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive and Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, will also impact the skills required in the future.
The ‘Building Future Skills’ report states “Building and construction activities are responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions globally; it is estimated that 28% of these emissions come from the use of the building over its lifespan (from energy used to heat, cool and light the building) while 11% is from embodied carbon in the materials and construction process.”
With robust environmental standards for new buildings, and the required retrofit of existing buildings, there will be a significant requirement for skilled workers to deal with this challenge.
The Government’s Climate Action Plan, published in 2019, committed to improving the energy efficiency of buildings, including homes, workplaces and schools, by meeting higher energy performance standards by increasing retrofit activity.
The building stock in Ireland is ageing, with almost 250,000 homes built pre-1945, and 175,000 pre-1919. The deep retrofit of a residential house can involve multiple energy upgrades all at once, including insulation, installation of renewable heating systems and/or solar panels. In order to deliver the targets set out, on average 50,000 homes will need to be retrofitted annually, from here to 2050, creating a significant long-term employment opportunity.
It was reported recently that Dublin City Council alone will need to spend €2bn to bring a stock of 8,000 flats up to the mandatory EU energy standards (B2) by 2050. The Council already has a rolling programme of retrofitting houses, but not yet flats. Each complex will need to be dealt with in its entirety—some to be demolished and replaced, others to undergo retrofitting.
Having spent over 40 years working in the construction industry, I have seen the world change dramatically over the duration of my career. Previous generations would not recognise or understand many aspects of today’s world. Yet, the very industry which builds this modern world that we live in is lagging behind. It has remained one of the last industries to embrace digital innovation, a tidal wave of which has swept through every other occupation and industry, changing the way people work, even changing what is required of people within specific roles. As we look forward to the future of our country, with the Project Ireland 2040 vision, it is urgent that we ensure the skills will be available to make this national plan a reality.
The skills required in the construction sector are continually evolving, although in many senses, they have not caught up with where they need to be. Some skills are declining in importance, being displaced by technology over time.
Over the last century or two, new building materials, tools and techniques have been invented and developed—3D printing, new materials and cladding systems, offsite manufacturing—and innovators have pushed the boundaries of architecture and engineering in myriad ways. Diverse materials, innovative designs and digitalised work practices, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), all call for particular skills.
The increased complexity of modern buildings and building techniques requires continuous up-skilling within the industry to stay up to date with the processes involved. Furthermore, with increased complexity of projects, comes an increased need for the so called ‘soft’ skills, like communication and collaboration. For example, in BIM Level 0, there is no collaboration (designs are drafted on CAD only), then as you move through Levels 1 and 2 there is increased data exchange, while Level 3 operates on ‘open data’ sharing, requiring a greater commitment to collaboration and cooperation. Those who have the technical ability, combined with what might be termed ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘IQ and EQ’ will be the most in demand. The ‘Roadmap to Digital Transition for Ireland’s Construction Industry 2018-2021’, which was published in 2017, sets out how to increase collaboration, reduce design and construction time and how to enable using information digitally.
Productivity is an ongoing issue within the construction sector, and the slow embrace of technology has fed into this, as other industries have undergone their digital disruption and powered through on the other side of it.
While technologies such as BIM have the power to significantly disrupt the industry, in other areas, new technologies require actors within the industry to become interdisciplinary specialists—roofers need to gain an understanding of solar panels, a plumber, who in the past may have up-skilled to the point of being a registered gas boiler specialist now needs to acquire the skills to deal with alternative renewable energy sources.
New technologies also create new roles within the industry, from the use of drones on survey work, to 3D modelling and producing virtual reality walk-throughs of projects. The skills to both deploy drones, and process and analyse the data points they gather, will increasingly be in demand. Video game technology has become increasingly sophisticated and converting BIM into collaborative three-dimensional environments can pre-empt problems early on, and allow changes to be made before the physical construction starts. One of the reasons noted for the sector’s slowness to invest in R&D and technology is its cyclical nature and the difficulty of long-term planning.
When it comes to challenges sourcing technical skills, the ‘Building Future Skills’ report states: “In terms of skills that were identified by firms as being difficult to source, a number of these were linked to the newer technologies, particularly the integration of the engineering discipline with new technologies. Challenges for firms in recruiting specialists in BIM, software engineers and data analysts were documented and aligning skillset with the right ‘company fit’ also makes recruiting difficult. Firms also reported that people with competencies in modelling software such as Civil 3D are difficult to find.”
Gender and Diversity
It is crucial that we ramp up efforts to attract school leavers to the industry, and with a particular focus on females, who are not represented in some trades at all, and still not at high enough numbers in the professions they have gravitated towards. In general, the construction industry is only recruiting from half of its potential population at present.
Overall, in the EU, women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the built environment sector. Segregation has been identified both horizontally (for example the exclusion of women from certain occupations) and vertically (exclusion from senior management positions and board membership). Historically, the construction sector is male-dominated, and only 6% of all workers in the sector in Ireland are women with the majority in administrative roles, and increasingly, in technical and managerial roles. There are also a number, still relatively low, of women working in qualified positions such as health and safety, human resources and management, environmental control and restoration work; only 1% of the women in the industry in Ireland work in onsite roles.
There is a clear split in female participation between industries requiring formal qualifications and those that do not. Female participation in Architecture, Town Planning, Civil Engineering, and Production Manager positions all have relatively high levels of female participation, which was maintained or increased between 2011 and 2016. These figures are still low in a national context, but very high in an industry context.
It is important that female role models with the industry are championed, to help break stereotypes and encourage secondary school students to look at career options in the sector. Also at secondary school level, particularly in single-sex schools, there is a dearth of built environment subject options available to girls—courses in design and communication graphics (technical drawing), technology, engineering, applied maths and construction studies are still more likely to be found in boys’ schools.
Preparing for the future
While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought its own challenges to the sector, many of the issues predated this, and will continue to be important areas to focus on as we look to recovery and growth in the future. Housing, infrastructural development and climate change mitigation will continue to inform the skills requirements in the industry over the next decade.
In order for the sector to brace itself for the future, it needs to ensure it can attract a diverse talent pool that has the necessary skills to meet its varied and evolving demands, and improving the sector’s reputation and appeal to young people is a vital part of this. Construction helps deliver essential health, education and humanitarian projects, as well as sustainability objectives, and this message, that the industry is an integrated problem-solving sector that anticipates future needs, can create a strong appeal to a generation who consider the meaning of their work and how it can contribute to society, extremely important in making their choices.
Built environment courses are substantially more costly to deliver relative to others (given the range of tools, machinery and increasingly software). The lack of multi-annual budgeting means that there is considerable effort required to maintain the level of funding allocated for built environment courses. Collaboration with industry may increasingly be an avenue to fill the gaps here.
There needs to be continual efforts to up-skill the workforce to facilitate the use of new technologies which can in turn address the ongoing issue of low productivity within the sector. A major trend that will continue will be the requirement for the merging of engineering and technology skills. It is also essential to prepare the industry to support climate action through retrofitting and greater energy efficiency in the future. Many small businesses and sole operators who are time and resource poor will require supports to be able to avail of training and courses to this end.
Other interesting suggestions, which came out of workshops conducted for the ‘Building Future Skills’ report, include a skills passport to allow migration to fill industry needs, a reduction in the length of craft apprenticeships, and the development of the equivalent of a Teagasc-type R&D agency for the construction sector.