Civils contractors sound alarm over skills shortage


February 19, 2020 – Britain’s ability to deliver its National Infrastructure Plan is being jeopardised by the construction industry’s failure to train enough people.

That is the warning from the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), whose latest survey of members’ workloads reveals an escalating recruitment crisis.

Results from CECA workload trends survey for 2019 Q4 show that a net balance of 52% of British firms reported supply issues with skilled operatives, the highest in nearly five years.

This doesn’t mean that 52% are having trouble; it means that if you subtract the percentage of those that are not having recruitment difficulties from the percentage of those that are having recruitment difficulties, the result is 52 percentage points.

In other words, if 28% are doing fine thanks, a massive 80% are struggling to recruit the workers they need. (CECA does not reveal absolute numbers here – only percentage point net balances – so it might be 10% fine, 62% struggling, for example.)

In the face of this crisis, civils contractors have called for government intervention in their own failure to deliver training. They want a national skills plan for the infrastructure sector.

CECA chief executive Alasdair Reisner said: “CECA’s workload trends survey is one of the most comprehensive barometers of the state of our industry. Our members are reporting continued difficulties with the supply of suitable workers, which should set alarm-bells ringing in Whitehall, Holyrood, and Cardiff.

“The pipeline of planned investment in the infrastructure sector is of a sufficient scale to be transformative to the whole of the UK economy, but unless the workforce is sufficiently skilled in all parts of the UK, our members will be unable to deliver it to its full potential.

“Industry and government at all levels must co-operate now to put in place a comprehensive skills plan for the infrastructure sector, both to upskill the existing workforce and attract new entrants to the industry, if we are going to be able to deliver the ‘infrastructure revolution’ we need, and secure the British economy in the coming years.”

After seeing their workloads decline in the third quarter of 2019, civil engineering contractors saw improvement in Great Britain during the fourth quarter of 2019. A net balance of 3% of firms reported an increase in workloads on a year ago, compared to a balance of 1% in Q3 that reported that workloads fell.

Overall, 34% of the respondents reported that workloads had increased, and 35% of the respondents reported that workloads were unchanged. For England, a quarter of firms, on balance, reported an increase in workloads in Q4, following a negative balance (-13%) in Q3. This was the highest balance since 2018 Q3.

However, in Scotland, a balance of 13% reported a decrease in workloads in Q4, compared to 27% that reported workloads had risen in Q3.  In Wales, workloads declined for a fourth consecutive quarter in Q4, according to 29% of firms, on balance.

Order books improved in Great Britain during the fourth quarter of 2019. A net balance of 13% of firms reported an increase in orders compared to a year earlier, up from a near seven-year low balance of -16% in Q3. 42% of firms reported that orders had increased and 30% of firms reported that they had decreased.

In England, 37% of firms, on balance, reported an increase in orders in Q4 following four consecutive quarters of decline and marking the highest balance in two years. Overall, 51% of firms reported that orders had increased and 35% reported that they were unchanged. After reporting a zero balance in Q3, orders increased according to 16% of firms, on balance, in Scotland. For a fifth consecutive quarter, orders in Wales decreased, on balance, according to 35% of firms.



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