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Targeting talent


An Inside Housing and Procurement Hub survey finds out how the housing sector feels about the shortage of skilled labour.  Picture by Getty

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The housing sector is unfamiliar with changes to apprenticeships and worried about a serious skills shortage post-Brexit, an Inside Housing survey run in association with Procurement Hub has suggested.

The survey aimed to find out how the skills shortage is already affecting the sector, what the longer-term consequences might be, the contributing factors, and thoughts on possible solutions.

Some 119 housing professionals responded. The majority worked within housing associations (43%), local authorities (19%) and housing contractors (4%). Executive leaders made up 33% of those taking part, with procurement and human resources professionals accounting for 22% and 11% respectively. Others (34%) contributed their views from across the spectrum of roles involved in the sector.

Various causes

Respondents felt no organisation was immune from the dearth of skilled labour. Just over two-thirds said they are currently facing a skills shortage to a large or to some extent, with the remainder saying they face a lack of skilled labour to a limited (24%) or very limited extent (8%).

Looking forward to 2020, 27% anticipate their organisation will be affected by a skills gap to a large extent and 50% to some extent.

The remainder is split between respondents saying they expect to face a skills gap to a limited (19%) or a very limited (4%) extent.

So what skills are needed and why is the sector struggling to recruit? When we asked respondents which roles they perceived would be most acutely affected by the skills shortage, 32% named construction project managers and 31% quantity surveyors. But much of the respondents’ needs came under the banner of the traditional trades: electricians (29%), plumbers (24%), carpenters/joiners (24%) and bricklayers (20%).

Around a third of respondents cited an ageing workforce as the most significant contributory factor in the sector’s skills gap. Roughly the same percentage attributed the shortage mainly to an inability to attract young people, and 21% named the challenge of attracting people to housing from other sectors. A fifth saw Brexit as the biggest problem.

“We’re in a constant state of flux with the impending effects of Brexit.” - Alan Heron, director
of procurement, Procurement Hub

Respondents’ comments offered greater insight, revealing difficulties recruiting “at all levels”. Some said the sector has become too reliant on outsourcing. Others cited competition from the private sector, a lack of apprentices and poor pay levels.

So what can the sector do to tackle these problems? More than half (51%) said the sector needs to fundamentally change the image of housing, making it more attractive to potential recruits.

Around a fifth said they hope increasing offsite construction would help lessen the impact of the skills shortage. Others (20%) hoped to mitigate the impact of Brexit by seeking government assurances that it will be easy for foreign-born skilled workers to come to or remain in the UK post-Brexit.

Around two-fifths of respondents (41%) said a greater focus in the housing sector on developing better apprenticeships was the most valuable solution to the skills shortage. Around the same amount said central government should increase funding for apprenticeships.

But few respondents seemed to be familiar with existing government efforts in this area. The apprenticeship levy was introduced in April 2017, and is a tax on UK employers designed to increase the funding available for apprenticeships. It aims to help deliver three million apprentices by 2020.

But less than a quarter of respondents (23%) described themselves as very familiar with the apprenticeship levy, with a little more than a third (38%) describing themselves as somewhat familiar. The survey shows a significant number are not very (26%), or not at all (13%) familiar with the initiative.

“I think there is a degree of burying heads in sand,” says Alan Heron, director of procurement at Procurement Hub.

Meanwhile, more than half of respondents said they are either not very confident (44%), or not at all confident (16%) that the levy will help the sector tackle the skills shortage.

“It’s interesting to see a lot of people thought that the new apprenticeship levy will fail to address the skills needs, but yet in the same breath they admit they know nothing about it. Which is perhaps a typically British approach,” says Mr Heron.

Levy opportunities

It seems some organisations have not changed their apprenticeship programmes in light of the new standards documents. These list the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed for being competent in a specific role, and apprenticeships should be assessed against them.

Only 22% of respondents said their organisations had changed their apprenticeship programmes in light of the new standards. More than a third (39%) said they didn’t know whether any changes had been made, while 16% of respondents said they had no current plans to make changes.

“The sector has to change. It has to project itself better.” - Alan Heron, director of procurement, Procurement Hub

“We’re in a state of constant flux at the moment with the impending effects of Brexit and the changes in apprenticeship legislation,” says Mr Heron. “The lack of awareness about the levy is quite concerning. There is oodles of information available.”

He argues that the levy presents two opportunities: to focus apprenticeships on the trades that an organisation requires, and to bring those apprentices forward into employment.

Organisations assign their own budgets, Mr Heron says, and can prioritise the skills that they need and that will stay within the sector.

He hopes a new dynamic purchasing system offered by Procurement Hub could help. “We have developed a dynamic purchasing system for apprenticeship training. We have accreditation from Ofsted, which means we only work with accredited training providers. But what we have also done is allowed people to search at a very granular level, by geography and specialty.”

And what of the broad skills shortage faced by the sector? “I thought Brexit would be the cause of the concern over a skills shortage, but actually it was the least important factor,” says Mr Heron.

“The biggest issue for the housing sector is making it an appealing place to work. The sector has to change. It has to project itself better and start reaching out to find the recruits it needs. It is down to the housing sector to do that.”

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