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Construction skills gap ‘threatens net zero targets’

Solar panel installation (image: Dreamstime)
Solar panel installation (image: Dreamstime)

The skills gap among construction workers is set to widen as 750,000 of them retire over the next 15 years, meaning that the UK could be left unable to meet its net zero targets.

The warning from think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has prompted leading construction industry figures, including Mace CEO Mark Reynolds, along with the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), British Property Federation, Federation of Master Builders and Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) to send a letter to the government warning that it isn’t even meeting current skills needs.

The letter called on the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to support the sector to get the green skills it needs, warning that the skills gap threatens to delay the UK’s ability to deliver a zero-carbon economy.

In a new report, the IPPR found that just 20% of construction workers are aged under 30, with 750,000 workers due to retire over the next 15 years.

The letter’s signatories said that initiatives to boost the number of workers with green skills in the infrastructure sector are “hamstrung” by a lack of coordination among firms, and a lack of leadership in government.

They argue that investment in a green recovery can create thousands of new

The IPPR proposals recommended by the industry leaders in the letter include:

  • Increasing funding for further education and expanding apprenticeships, as well creating a new National Infrastructure and Construction Skills Demand Pipeline at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.
  • Ensuring investment in skills is accounted for in budgets for government-funded infrastructure projects.
  • Legislating to improve pay and conditions for workers in the sector, to make construction careers more attractive to jobseekers.
  • The letter also recognises that the construction sector must itself make “substantial changes” to achieve the shared ambition of transforming the economy and reaching net zero by 2050.

Mark Farmer, letter signatory and author of the 2016 government commissioned Farmer Review of the construction labour model, said: “We need to start moving from rhetoric to action in the pursuit of net zero. This has to be about building a legacy that can deliver not just a strong economic recovery, but also a fundamental shift in climate change trajectory and the societal benefits generated from green infrastructure.

“I was commissioned by the government in 2016 to explain the skills crisis facing the construction sector, and how we can solve it. Over the past five years we have made progress on the recommendations of the Farmer Review. However, it is clear from the findings of IPPR’s research, that action is still needed. We need to invest in the skills system, and to go even further in making the rules of the game clear to firms in our industry.

“How the Treasury Green Book and Construction Playbook is operationalised in central government will determine whether we can really ‘build back better’ and maximise the opportunities of green recovery from the covid-19 pandemic.”

Oscar Watkins, IPPR construction sector lead, said: “We cannot build back better without the builders. As this letter from industry leaders and organisations demonstrates, the construction sector wants to be at the heart of the UK’s drive to net zero emissions and a low carbon economy but recognises it does not yet have the skills it will need to do this.

“In addition to the steps the industry says it will take to meet this challenge, departments across government need to come together and direct investment where it is needed most, to unlock the full potential of businesses in the sector. The government’s procurement system also needs to be made more adept at recognising and meeting skills needs.

“It is essential that the construction sector has a pipeline of skilled and motivated people coming through the system into the sector to make the green transition possible.”

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