Saturday, August 15, 2015

Tackle skills shortage from the inside

Malcolm Thomson, BESA President

Having been in this industry for over 30 years, I have experienced my fair share of ups and downs, but there is something particularly challenging about the current business cycle, writes Jim Marner.

The last recession was longer and deeper than most and, as a result, the inevitable upswing and the accompanying skills shortages are more dramatic than the past. The skills issue is a real threat to our ability to take advantage of the economic recovery and employers are more worried than ever about soaring salary levels as the demand for skilled people grows.

I’ve been around long enough not to be surprised that a common response has been indiscriminate head hunting and the panicky shifting of people around the industry. However, I can say I am disappointed.

Such short-term tactics are only delaying the inevitable and can only be played out for a limited period until it all becomes unaffordable and the reservoir of suitable people is totally depleted. All employers need to take a good, hard look at themselves and work out a more responsible and sustainable approach.


We should be addressing our skills problem from within our own companies and in partnership with our preferred supply chains. We must all contribute to training and individual development if we are to successfully deliver an ever increasing workload. If we commit to training from within and support like-minded partners in our preferred supply chain we can take advantage of this growth.

Employees too should resist the temptation to go after greener grass.  It is great that many are getting the recognition they deserve as a valuable commodity, but there is more to this than money. They are in a position of strength and should take the opportunity to discuss their prospects with their current employer and consider the wider benefits such as future development, training and security to be gained by remaining where they are. 

It is simple economic reality that supply and demand will force salary increases, but no one wants to catch a cold over this. Companies must build this risk into their prime costs at tender to make sure they are covered.

My company SES Engineering Services works on major projects right across the UK and, as well as traditional sectors, it has some key projects in highly complicated and technical environments such as power, infrastructure and defence. These throw up their own logistical challenges and are creating hot spots within the country for skilled resource at all levels.

However, collaborative frameworks and preferred supply chain agreements are helping to secure the right level of skills to ensure these projects get delivered and, if this approach was adopted more widely, it could be applied to address skills problems right across the sector.


Employment agencies have a part to play as well and, while they might have been seen as non-contributors in the past, those who are now making positive contributions to training, industrial relations and welfare are now a key source of skilled labour and, therefore, a legitimate part of the industry.

During my year as President, I plan to work closely with the Building Services Engineering Employment Agency Alliance, which was set up in 2008 in acknowledgement of the increasingly important role employment agencies play. They, like any employer, must also provide appropriate training and proper rights and employment protection for the workers on their books.

I am also encouraged by the new Conservative government's pledge to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020, but it will be a tall order and the government must step up on this as employers cannot continue to foot the bill for investment in apprentices. We are standing by to help, but the government must play its part.

The government's Trailblazer apprentice scheme is an important initiative, but I do wish they would stop changing it and moving the goalposts. There also needs to be greater focus on addressing the specific shortages in the engineering sector because this is critical to the government’s own targets for delivering infrastructure and construction targets.

One key area that is helping my company address skills issues is the growing use of off-site manufacturing. Increasingly this will help contractors to deliver projects and grow turnover whilst still retaining a directly-employed workforce. However this, along with the rise of digital construction methods, means we are now looking for a whole new range of skills – another challenge in itself.

New working practices mean we are opening up a whole new digitised industry that is great news for our clients, but also should make building engineering services easier to ‘sell’ to young people as an exciting, rewarding and long-term career.

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