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The industry skill shortage: we are to blame

How will we build our way into the next century without more qualified engineers? We need to inspire and take action, says NCE editor, Antony Oliver

We have been talking about the need to tackle the once looming, now very real skill shortage in UK construction for nearly a decade. Frankly it's a disgrace.

Falling numbers studying civil engineering at university and entering industry at work training schemes was flagged up back in the 1990s. Yet here we are in 2008 still scratching our heads across all sectors and all regions over what to do to find the right staff.

OK, we are starting to see a small upturn in the numbers taking undergraduate courses in the built environment. But we are working from a low base and are still very far from supplying the demand.

Figures this week from CITB-construction skills are alarming. Finding 88,400 new recruits across the industry every year - 12,100 new professional and technical recruits - for the next four years is not going to be easy.

And as Olympic Delivery Authority chairman John Armitt pointed out this week, we cannot continue to blame the government for the problem - or even look to the government for a solution. Yet unfortunately it seems that this is precisely what we have been doing over the last decade.

In fact, if I was in government right now I would be disappointed to realise that after so long lobbying for consistent public sector infrastructure investment, the industry is now concerned about its ability to deliver.

Is that what government wants hear? Is that the message that we want to put out? No. We must assume that the exciting infrastructure future will continue. And we must assume that finding sufficient skills to enable the UK industry to capitalise on the booming workload will now be, as Armitt warned, a challenge of similar proportion to that faced climate change.

So what to do? To start, the industry, Armitt believes, needs to "be responsible" for its skills problems. He's obviously diplomatic in his choice of words because he knows as well as anyone that if we are to avoid the triple threat of spiralling costs, eroding quality and increased accidents on site, real action is also needed.

In short, the industry has got to stand up collectively and be counted, starting - of course - with the clients like Armitt, and then down through the supply chain - consultants, contractors, suppliers and institutions.

As Pete Waterman points out, we need to rethink the way we sell the industry to children and capitalise on the excitement of Bob the Builder, construction toys and train sets.

Construction and infrastructure is a vital and exciting part of the UK economy. We seem to have convinced the government of this point - we now have to convince ourselves and then the nation's children, school leavers and students. Over to you.

- Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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