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What the experts say (about construction in 2021)

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After last year, surely only a fool would make predictions for 2021.  That said, we now have far more clarity than we did last March, even if it looks likely that severe restrictions on business and personal life are going to continue for some time to come. In particular, Brexit, which has preoccupied so many people for so many years, is now a done deal and, with the FTA now signed off, we know how the land lies for the immediate future. Yes, there will be some issues around labour, materials and infrastructure and an end to free movement could have an effect on the availability of workers. This, obviously, has implications for recruiters, of which more below. 

I’ve trawled the specialist press and the mainstream media to find out what some of the key commentators said in the last few months of 2020.   Here’s what I found.

Construction News, the UK’s principal publication for our industry, came up with an interesting list of firms to watch out for in 2021.  There were ten of these: Kier, Costain, Carey Group, NMCN, Laing O’Rourke, Tide Construction/Vision Modular, Glencar, Interserve Construction, Merit, and Kingspan.  Interestingly, three of these companies made this list on the basis of their offsite expertise. 

Moving north of the border, into our own area of expertise, Project Scotland and Construction News Scotland both carried articles from Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC) CEO Stephen Good, outlining five themes that he believes will define construction in 2021. These range from greater collaboration in the industry to the need for enhanced supply chain resilience (especially in the event of what he thought might be a no-deal Brexit – now, hopefully, not an issue).  A greater focus on de-carbonisation is also likely, he says, as well as an acceleration in digital transformation. The latter will be partly a result of possible labour/skill shortages, some of which will be a result of Brexit, but also as a result of the industry realising that it has been behind the tech curve for too long.  Expect more 3-D printing, remote tech, modular construction, BIM and VDC.

The fifth theme that Stephen Good identified is shifting demand for skills, with shortages continuing in key areas. This, of course, will likely result in higher project costs, given that it will take some time before the impact of new tech starts to reduce these.  We have seen a reduction in the labour force in construction in some key areas.  Some of this is down to the ageing workforce, at all levels, but as Good notes, there is “a great deal of latent demand for construction skills. As the UK and Scottish Governments’ infrastructure plans take shape and aim to deliver a boost to the economy, that should only become more apparent.”

However, despite the optimism that is, undoubtedly, only going to increase as the vaccination programme rolls out over the first half of 2021, that issue of skills shortages is not going away.  In December last year, Project Scotland reported a Glasgow businessman being amazed that his firm could not fill ten job vacancies.  These included drivers, motor mechanics, labourers, bench hands and accounts assistants.  Interestingly, the firm “advertise on one of Scotland’s leading jobs websites and receive fewer job applications than we would like, but we have found that a significant number of people fail to show up for their arranged interviews. It is then even more baffling that all too many people who have been offered roles in our business, every one of which pays above the Living Wage rate, do not appear on the day they are due to start with us.”

I have to say, I’m not especially surprised about any of the above problems this firm is having.  Dare I say it, you get what you pay for: job-board advertising has been showing diminishing returns for years.  A good recruitment agency (I can recommend one!) will be more likely to identify, vet and select candidates who not only turn up for interviews but also start on day one of their new job!

Chris Peace, MD, Peace Recruitment



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