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EP_19.jpg July/August 2005
Cover Story
Up to Speed
A Better Future
Bovis Homes

Trevor Rees highlights the need for partnerships between recruiters and employers
to overcome the staffing and skills challenges facing the industry.


03.jpg Having begun my life as an apprentice engineer in the 70s before moving into construction recruitment nearly 20 years ago, I have experienced both the highs and lows that these industries have been through. Some of the personal highs have included the invaluable investment I was lucky enough to receive during an aircraft engineering apprenticeship I started with the RAF at 16. I have also been fortunate to work for a company that helps its candidates build a career not just a job, supporting them as they climb the career ladder.

On the downside, I witnessed the wholesale cuts made to training and education budgets during the recession of the early 90s, which prompted so many skilled workers to leave the construction industry.

The lingering effects of these lows are still being felt today. Many of the challenges we face as an industry can be linked to the cuts and short term approach that did so much damage in the 90s.

The deficiencies in training and retention borne of the 90s recession combined with the poor employment image of the industry goes some way to explaining the depth of the skills crisis we are in currently. A shortage of site labour is being felt alongside a distinct lack of qualified professionals in key areas such as design and structural engineering. It seems it has taken a shortage to remind people about how valuable high quality site labour is.

From an external perspective the industry appears healthy with vacancy numbers on the up and salaries increasing for those with the right skills. According to the most recent REC Report on Jobs, construction out-performed all the other main sectors with the largest rise in permanent employment. On the temporary side construction also saw the largest increase in staff demand. Growth is important for any industry but it needs to be balanced and sustainable.

The risk is that companies trying to recruit and retain skilled workers are paying the price for shortages of both skilled and unskilled labour. As with any cost there will come a point when some will refuse to pay and wages will drop as demand falls away.

In a recent industry survey of employers, one firm identified a site cleaner as the number one hire of the past 12 months. This is no surprise when you consider that the individual had managed to make an important site a safe and enjoyable place to work contributing directly to higher-than-average staff retention on the site. A refreshing validation for finding committed and professional employees at all levels.

Over the years there have been several initiatives put in place by successive governments that have tried to stimulate long term investment and development.

For example, the health and safety record, that has for a long time, put many youngsters off a career in building and construction is now improving to the extent that some of the site offices I visit are now more appealing than a company’s head office.

Education is the foundation for any profession and it is widely accepted that by developing new courses focussing on vocational qualifications alongside the more traditional academic disciplines, the industry will be better placed for the future.

At the moment the greatest catalyst for change has to be the current stable economic conditions. These are allowing companies to plan for the future and invest in a more sustainable way than has been possible for some time. By developing a clear career path for workers these forward thinking companies are more likely to attract the top talent the sector needs and set an example to others who want to do the same.

All these positive initiatives are designed to create a brighter future, however, recruitment companies are struggling to deal with a considerable skill and labour gap today. Many employers are therefore turning their attention overseas and sourcing plumbers, carpenters and other skilled labour from countries that joined the European Union last year such as Latvia, Poland and Slovakia.

Creative Approaches
In my role as the recently elected national chair for the REC TEC sector group, I have witnessed a number of creative approaches. There is considerable investment from agencies into projects designed to meet the ongoing employment challenges faced by the construction industry.

There are ‘boutique’ recruitment agencies specialising in certain areas that have introduced independent employee assessments, audits and worker counselling, aimed at both improving employee relations and developing stronger staff retention.

At the same time many larger recruiters have set up ‘kick-start’ training programmes to rapidly up-skill candidates in areas such as computer aided design and engineering setting out. Training programmes and improved employee support are not new ideas, but historically the recruitment industry struggled to see the return in this type of long-term candidate investment.

These new approaches should be applauded but the basics are just as important. The most successful agency/client relationships are those that are a partnership enabling the agency to really understand the client’s business. It is only by forming strong bonds and generating relationships built on trust and mutual value that everyone’s needs can be satisfied.

Recruiters looking to attract new talent and raise standards among existing workers are beginning to work closely with the likes of Constructing Excellence, Construction Industry Training Board and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board. There is even talk of agency led apprenticeships in the near future.

Alongside individual member initiatives to improve skills and professionalism within the industry, the recruitment trade association has recently launched ‘REC Audited’. The scheme is comprised of 125 auditable criteria to ensure compliance with the 1973 Employment Agency Act as well as the REC’s own Code of Good Recruitment Practice. It is important to look for the ‘REC Audited’ logo, which the REC has developed to ensure that agencies work to the highest operational standards.

The construction industry is in relatively good health today, but we don’t want to neglect the foundations. Employers and recruiters have an important role to play to ensure the industry continues to prosper by investing in its future.  CT-E

Trevor Rees is business development director of Malla Recruitment and a board member of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s (REC) Technical, Engineering and Construction group (TEC).To contact Trevor Rees at Malla Recruitment call +44 (02920) 475480 or email: trevor.rees@malla.com, or REC http://www.rec.uk.com

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