Leading industry figures explore how this burgeoning sector is addressing a severe gap in skills

Latest research from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)* once again reflects a considerable shortage of talent throughout the UK property and construction sector, with 53% of contributors to the quarterly RICS UK Construction and Infrastructure Market Survey reporting a lack of skills as a constraint on growth. In the North West, a steep upsurge in building activity means firms are feeling the impact more intensely than anywhere else outside London.

“We’re seeing acute shortages of talent in key areas including building and quantity surveying, project management and cost consultancy,” explains Philip Youle-Grayling (pictured), head of property and construction at recruitment firm Perpetual Partnerships.

“The issue has been compounded by a marked slowdown in activity triggered by the 2008 recession which severely damaged the sector’s medium-term prospects and led to a drop in young people entering these professions.

“In the last four years activity has picked up again in a significant way, and this has cast light on the true impact of almost a decade of stagnation which has effectively created a skills gap of five to ten years.

“In the longer term, it is anticipated that more people will be attracted back into the industry, but for now employers need to do more to attract, motivate and retain good people,” adds Youle-Grayling.

Firms across the North West are reporting an increase in capital projects. At Big Four professional services firm Deloitte, Peter Wilkinson is head of the North West Real Estate team based at the firm’s Manchester office.

“Consultancy support and growth around HS2 and transport in general are just part of an upturn in activity that we’re seeing in the North West. The rise of the Northern Powerhouse and its agenda for devolved powers in transport and infrastructure and science and innovation are also stimulating confidence.”

In recent months, Deloitte’s capital projects team has supported Manchester Airport Group (MAG) in its £1bn transformation, as well as working with BAE Systems in Barrow, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority on a variety of capital projects and programmes.

“These are massive programmes of national importance employing thousands of professionals across the region. The career opportunities we have here in the North West are phenomenal and there’s no doubt they are set to grow.

“Science and innovation programmes such as the University of Manchester’s Graphene Institute are also stimulating the region’s building activity and securing our position on the global stage. This is an exciting time to be in the sector.”

Steve Gillingham, Regional Director at international consultancy and construction company Mace agrees that the North West offers some of the best opportunities for property professionals anywhere in the world:

“On the near-term horizon, a great area of growth is infrastructure, with two major nuclear schemes up and running in terms of consultancy teams, and several transport projects providing connectability right across the North of England led by Northern Rail and Metrolink.

“The Northern Powerhouse movement is driving the agenda, giving the region responsibility for energy, transport, and housing, developing digital infrastructure, locating international business and reinforcing our economy.

“All this makes our future in the North West very exciting. It will shape our business and we want a hand in influencing the agenda, but we recognise very clearly that to put ourselves in the best shape possible, we also need to play our part in addressing the shortage of skilled professionals.”

In Warrington, the economic development agency Warrington & Co, which drives growth on behalf of the local authority, is also reporting a large upsurge in building activity. Andrea Turner is the organisation’s Senior Development Manager leading housing delivery.

“The growth strategy in our area of the region includes the construction of major infrastructure, from roads and bridges to town centre retail, the Omega business park and 30,000 new homes, all of which links into a wider development policy across the Cheshire Region, the Atlantic Gateway and Northern Powerhouse.

“Our plans include 20 years’ worth of construction work in the Warrington Zone alone. Finding the skills we need to fulfil these projects in the volumes we need them is a very real challenge for us and our partners. A lack of supply of people in this industry means fewer developers to compete for contracts, and that leads to projects taking longer and costing more.

“In order to reap the greatest benefits for business and for our wider economic prosperity we need to explore new ways to stimulate the employment market.”

With the gap between supply and demand of technical property professionals at an all-time high, Perpetual Partnerships’ Philip Youle-Grayling says firms also need a strong value proposition to differentiate themselves from other companies competing for talent.

“The biggest salaries don’t always attract the best people. Satisfying a candidate’s career and life aspirations and providing them with the right environment to succeed in is just as important as meeting their financial expectations.

“Once a company has identified everything they can offer in terms of environment, benefits, progression, vision and values, this needs to be matched to candidates whose technical skill, personality and goals are closely aligned.”

Youle-Grayling also warns companies not to fall into the trap of making poor hiring decisions because they are under pressure to fill roles with a small pool of available talent.

“Employers need to look beyond what is immediately available. The reality is that the best people are usually busy; typically they don’t have time to look for a new job. They might not even realise that they’re not entirely happy where they are.

“These are the candidates who need to be won over, and they are unlikely to jump ship unless they are confident that what they are jumping for is better than what they already have. Can your organisation give them exposure to really interesting and challenging projects, good levels of mentoring and career progression, vocational and non-vocational training, a secure future?”

At Deloitte, Peter Wilkinson believes the combination of strategic advice and project delivery work that the firm provides means it can give property professionals a more varied career.

“As projects become more complex, we’re looking for people with technical expertise who can also undertake consultancy, and in return we can offer a varied and interesting career.”

The firm has also seen a shift in the way people manage their careers in the industry.

“We see a lot of very clever and talented people who want to work at Deloitte because we’re a big four firm. In recent years we’ve witnessed a clear shift in their aspirations as more candidates come to us with a very clear view of what they want from the job.

“Unlike previous generations who found professional reward and satisfaction from working for long stretches – often whole careers – in one firm, we’re now seeing a new wave of confident young professionals who want to develop their careers across several organisations, staying in one firm for just a few years.

“As an employer, we recognise the need to become more flexible; to change the way we think and develop new policies that work for new generations of professionals. We want to find ways to make the most of their skills and talents while they are here and help them to develop their careers in the way they want.”

Mace’s Steve Gillingham says that with a dearth of good candidates across the board, he and his team are having to work harder to identify and attract the best ones. But they too have an eye firmly on the future of the sector.

“We’re changing the way we recruit with a far more proactive approach at junior levels. Right now for example, the industry has access to a pot of just 700 to 800 quantity surveying graduates serving the whole of the UK. That’s simply not enough, and that scenario is replicated across several specialisms including mechanical and electrical engineers.

“We’re working with Manchester College to develop a professional apprenticeship programme and are running a series of regional recruitment days where we can build relationships with larger numbers of graduates, beginning with programme management, project controls, commercial and quantity surveying.”

Warrington & Co’s Funding and Skills Manager Tim Smith also believes a better apprenticeship model could hold some of the answers to stimulating the market.

“Schemes that recruit, employ and organise training for apprentices on behalf of multiple host employers, and then monitor results, would help to attract more young people into the industry, improve standards and ensure true apprenticeships are being undertaken.

“The Apprenticeship Levy might also hold more opportunities to solve the shortage of talent if businesses in scope are able to redirect surplus funding to address skills and recruitment needs in their existing supply chain or to meet future pipeline demand.”

Deloitte’s Peter Wilkinson adds:

“The North West is an extremely active and dynamic market, but in order to sustain our success we need more young people building their careers in this sector, and we need to attract more experienced professionals to the region.

“As a firm we are very mindful of the importance of maintaining a strong value proposition that reflects the high standard of opportunity and lifestyle that we can offer in the North West region.”