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Debate needed over job security and technology

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There is a feeling that construction, if not in crisis, could certainly be doing better.  Industry chiefs, as reported in Project Scotland, are adamant that despite UK construction output increasing by 1% for the first quarter of 2019, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there are still underlying problems and that the ONS figures should actually be interpreted as a wake-up call to the government.  More infrastructure projects are seen as part of the solution, but of course, our industry is not the only one making the case to be at the front of the queue for public money, while the government is, how can I put this, not exactly firing on all (if any) cylinders at the moment.

Of course, one of the other things that many construction leaders are concerned about is the continuing skills shortage in many disciplines. This is not going away soon, but what the Associate Editor of Construction News calls “the Brave New World” of Construction, to wit, the continuing and growing impact of technology on the industry, is going to play a part in helping to reduce the numbers employed. For company leaders, the use of technology to replace labour is essential. Mark Robinson, chief executive of Scape Groups (also as reported in Project Scotland) said that he believes there is a requirement, by 2025, to “reduce the number of skilled workers we need by 40,000.”

I suspect he is right, but at current rates of progress this is not going to happen soon enough for Mr Robinson and all those concerned about skills shortages.  Moreover, the problem of a lack of skilled professionals is not unique to construction and, while I have written extensively about the need for more and better deployment of technology in our sector, I can see a political battlefield looming over the importance of giving people security and self-respect in the job market.  

More specifically, as and when technological unemployment really begins to hit, there will be many outraged voices. The car industry is a topical case in point, with Brexit not helping UK manufacturing sites and Jaguar Land Rover seemingly at risk of being sold to Peugeot. With a UK general election likely in the near future, you can see how the tens of thousands of jobs involved will become a political football.  

Of course, the car industry has already seen a lot of automation, but the makers of the electric cars of the future will not just be the current industry titans of BMW, VW, etc.  Instead, they’ll come from China, Google, Dyson and a host of other companies we haven’t heard of yet.  Electric cars are reportedly be easier to build and have fewer moving parts, thus increasing their longevity and the need for (expensive) specialists to repair them. In other words, they’ll bring even more technological unemployment.

Perhaps more interestingly/worryingly, the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report predicts that around 65% of children starting primary school this year will eventually work in jobs that currently don’t exist. That almost certainly means that existing jobs will change and/or cease to exist. For individuals, especially those with existing (dare we say “traditional”) construction skills, there is going to be a need for re-training and, possibly, even a career change to another (as yet unknown) sector.  There is a whole debate just waiting to be had here which will impact on construction as well as almost every other type of work.  We need to begin it now and not wait until it’s too late to consider what will happen to those discarded by the industries in which they have spent their entire working lives.  And of course, this applies to recruitment too…

Chris Peace, MD, Peace Recruitment 


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