Investing in tomorrow: Kubota on tackling the skills gap

Even before the onset of the Coronavirus, the construction industry was facing up to a widening skills gap; something that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic and subsequent measures to supress it.

Here, Glen Hampson, Construction Division Manager at Kubota UK, takes a closer look at some of the steps being taken to bridge the skills gap – and considers why a sector-wide approach is needed to attract the talent of tomorrow.

Generating almost £90bn annually and representing 6.7% of the UK’s GDP, the construction sector is one of the most important facets of the British economy. Key to a thriving and productive construction industry is, of course, the highly-skilled workforce that power it, with the sector currently supporting around 10% of all employment in the UK.

Such seemingly robust statistics belie the looming skills shortage that has long been hanging over the industry. This is no small part due to the construction sector’s workforce being among the oldest-skewing out of any industry nationwide. At last count, 22% of all construction professionals are currently aged 50 or over, with a further 15% in their 60s. With such a significant chunk of the sector heading towards retirement over the coming decade, the industry stands to lose a great deal of accrued knowledge, acumen and know-how.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing (albeit temporary) disruption to further education and apprenticeships, has disrupted an already fragile pipeline of fresh talent – all at a time when the industry needs new blood the most.

Investing in talent

Indeed, the Government’s recently unveiled COVID-19 recovery plans put construction at the heart of rebuilding the country’s beleaguered economy. The Prime Minister’s promise to ‘build, build, build’ has led to the announcement of major infrastructure projects and a pledge to build 180,000 affordable homes between 2021 to 2026 – fantastic opportunities for the sector but ones that will require thousands of new recruits if these plans are to be realised.

But how can the industry go about attracting fresh talent? An October 2020 report by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) argued that government investment will be the single biggest weapon in preventing a generation of skilled workers from being lost. The report argued for further investment into the recently launched National Skills Fund, alongside reform to the Apprenticeship Levy to allow employers to pass on unspent vouchers in bulk.

At Kubota, we have long recognised the importance of meaningful apprenticeships in encouraging more young people to start a career in construction. Apprenticeships offer a vital way into the sector, affording those undertaking the schemes the chance to gain valuable experience in a real world setting, all while earning money.

The Kubota way

As a business, Kubota has always placed great focus on our engineering apprenticeship programmes, recognising that investing in the apprentice of today helps create the expert of tomorrow.  Our scheme sees apprentices based at one of our nationwide dealerships, blending practical experience with theory delivered by one of our partner colleges. At the end of the programme, each apprentice will leave with a valuable, industry-recognised qualification in engineering for their chosen machinery product area, alongside the opportunity to attend continual technical training at one of Kubota’s industry-leading training facilities.

Our apprenticeship schemes have been especially tailored to be reflective of the wider construction industry, ensuring those completing the programme have all the skills they need to thrive in an industry as fast-paced and quickly evolving as construction.

After all, the requisite skills for a career in construction today differ from those needed thirty years ago – and are likely to change again in the next thirty. Since the turn of the Millennium, the role of technology in construction work has grown exponentially; not just in terms of machinery, but design and manufacturing too. Concepts such as AI, virtual reality and 3D printing are a growing part of construction work, and proficiency in using these will, one day, be essential – and that’s something apprenticeship schemes have to take into account.

Looking ahead

It isn’t unfair to say that the past few years have been incredibly challenging for the construction sector. The turbulence of Brexit and the seismic impact of the Coronavirus have both impacted the sector’s skill gap, but we should rest assured that there are significant opportunities waiting for us.

As we look ahead to life beyond the pandemic, it’s clear that tackling the skills shortage should be our sector’s number one priority. Bridging the gap won’t be easy, and will require buy-in from the government and collaboration across the supply chain, but if we invest now in meaningful schemes that harness tomorrow’s talent, we’ll be well positioned to ensure the sector is thriving for decades to come.