Andrew Dann talks to Paul Daynes of Newforma about the impact of AEC skills shortages and how the construction sector might address the challenges facing the industry

In June 2016 the population of the UK voted in a referendum that will result in the eventual exit of the state from the European Union (EU). This ‘Brexit’ result has understandably generated ripples of uncertainty throughout the global economy and has compounded the lingering issues relating to a drop in production following the 2008 financial crash. With recently published UKCES reports indicating that the construction industry is particularly susceptible to a lack in applicable skills, the growing impact of the information explosion and the decision of the UK to exit the European Union has triggered a rush of activity within the skills dimension of the architecture, engineering and construction sector. Indeed, while the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector is currently relatively buoyant, the industry continues to face a crisis in retaining the appropriate skills to ensure that the UK construction sector remains both healthy and robust post-Brexit and beyond.

Information presented in the Employer Skills Survey 2015: UK Results, Evidence Report 97 released by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) during May 2016, indicates that an increasing number of jobs are being left unfilled because employers are unable to find the right candidates with the right skills. The report further reveals that that the electricity, gas and water utilities and construction sectors have the highest densities of skillshortage vacancies, with shortfalls of 35 per cent and ten per cent respectively. This represents a significant shift from 2013, when skill-shortage vacancy density was most pronounced within the manufacturing, business services and agriculture sectors. The information was collected by the UKCES through its 2015 Employer Skills Survey (ESS).

Additional research undertaken by Euan McLeod and Kirsteen Milne in their Brexit Analysis Bulletin – Construction & Infrastructure for Shepherd and Wedderburn, indicates that the UK construction industry generates around £90 billion annually, accounting for around 6.7 per cent of GDP and employing over 2.9 million people. However despite its importance to the UK economy, the number of skill-shortage vacancies in the construction sector has more than doubled since 2013 from 5000 to 12,000 according to the ESS. To some extent this reflects increased recruitment activity in the sector as it continues to recover from the implications of the 2008 financial downturn, however the ESS observes that the rate of growth in skill-shortage vacancies has outpaced the growth of vacancies in this sector. As a result the construction industry faces significant challenges in recruiting sufficiently skilled labour, with employers currently struggling to fill one in three construction vacancies.

There are several factors that have contributed to the development of the skills crisis within the AEC industry. The sector is already experiencing a labour and skills shortage, caused by a lasting impact of the large number of job losses during the recession and an ageing workforce resulting in a high retirement rate. For example, presently around 22 per cent of UK construction workers are over 50, while 15 per cent are over 60.

Further to these already significant challenges, the uncertainty of the Brexit decision and the increasing need to manage data in the wake of the ‘information explosion’ have each added a new dimension to the skill-shortage vacancy problem. As a sector that relies heavily on both skilled and non-skilled workers born outside of the UK, one of the key concerns relating to the leave vote is the potential curtailment of the free movement of people. This could be a troubling development of the AEC sector in the wake of a 2015 Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) UK Construction Survey, which indicates that 66 per cent of firms have turned down work due to a lack of staff. Furthermore according to the same survey, wages are reportedly increasing as a direct result of the skills shortage, with average earnings increasing by more than six per cent as of October 2015.

Speaking to CAD User in the wake of the Brexit referendum, Paul Daynes, Regional Director, UK and Northern Europe at Newforma, suggests that the leave vote will not have a significant impact on of the UK AEC sector in Europe and beyond. “I don’t think the influence of the UK AEC sector will change much in the wake of the leave vote. The UK construction industry is adaptable and will continue to be adaptable. I can see a lot more confidence in the industry, despite the current uncertainty. This will be, to some degree, driven by the economy once the dust has settled and the industry refocuses – whether it is driven by architects, engineers, or driven by projects,” he says. “It is investor confidence that will drive the industry – providing focus, tools and investment, especially in the public segment, or in the private sector adopting new technology to support processes. In future we will need to use tools more effectively to achieve the end goal. In other words, in times of uncertainty we need to get our own house in order. It’s all about investment. The companies that are going to be best placed will be those who have invested in technology. Companies should spend more time getting strategies worked out.”

Indeed, while the eventual impact of Brexit remains somewhat uncertain, the development of information technology (IT) and the resulting ‘information explosion’ is something that businesses within the AEC sector have increasingly had to get to grips with to remain competitive. The information explosion relates to the rapid increase in the availability of published information or data and the effects of this abundance. For companies within the AEC industry, a lack of method for comparing in processing information can result in ‘information overload’ and reduced overall efficiency. Research undertaken by Vanson Bourne on behalf of Newforma, suggests that lack of planning around the information explosion has had a negative impact on project collaboration in AEC projects. “The correlation between the information explosion and impact on project collaboration can be attributed to systems used and to connect information relevance to the task in hand. The introduction of building information modelling (BIM) is clearly creating more data through design,” Paul explains to CCE. “The key solution is in being able to capture information from all sources and content and be able to communicate effectively to support collaboration. Traditional approaches using a number of data or information silos/databases make this task very onerous on company effectiveness. Taking an indexing approach of all information sources, such as provided through Newforma, reduces the effort to find information in the first instance and secondly makes the process of referencing information far easier from a collaborative sense.”

Effective collaboration is key to future success throughout the construction industry. Core to this is the enabling of IT to support the mobility of information both within the office and onsite. Industry leaders also need to be able to inspire their teams to use their natural creative skills, without the burden of project administration. “Confidence is a vital personal attribute to grow into teams and e-learning and information portals provide a great source of self-learning,” Paul says. “Looking forward to BIM Level 3 and the quest for digital assets, skill development will need to challenge the norm of traditional design to build workflows that exist in industry today. In a fast moving industry change is inevitable. Skill development therefore needs to be adaptive to change, otherwise the result could be even more muddled and inefficient to what the AEC industry is looking to achieve.”

As the AEC sector increasingly incorporates digital information, teams will need to focus on capturing and harnessing information regardless of its source location. Traditional approaches of not connecting project email, controlled and noncontrolled documents/models/ drawings place projects at risk, as all information is not accounted for. By indexing information sources together, project results become predictable without any change to working practices. However where project teams do employ digital technology in project execution, information is still commonly stored using internal systems and preferred storage processes. Newforma believes that a flexible approach to information sharing provides a superior platform with which to promote project collaboration. “Traditional workflows and approach to information storage in the main represent the cultural makeup of how companies execute projects. Academia also tends to teach information in traditional sense. Newforma has a very flexible approach to where information is stored and shared. Education of alternative technologies, like Newforma hybrid on-premise and cloud services, compared to traditional database and extranet technologies will certainly support improved and more flexible ways of working,” Paul concludes. “Newforma takes a very pragmatic approach to enhancing skills around its technology. This is delivered through 24×7 e-learning modules in addition to on-line learning tutorials and chat lines to support rapid and accessible learning. Its customer community portal provides up to date information including on product updates and training.”

The skills crisis within the AEC sector will undoubtedly continue to create challenges for construction companies within the UK during the coming years, especially as the impact of the Brexit decision remains to be fully understood. Despite these challenges the AEC sector is in a relatively strong position within the UK and is set to continue a strong relationship with Europe post-Brexit. This relationship can be further facilitated and strengthened through efficient IT and information sharing as long as companies continue to invest in training and effective data management.

Newforma is a market leading provider ofProject Information Management (PIM) solutions in the AEC sector. Its technology empowers individuals, web-based collaboration to strengthen construction teams, and an information management platform to optimise company performance. On over two million projects worldwide, design and construction professionals are using Newforma software to deliver more successful projects. The company’s UK customers in the AEC market include BDP, Capita, Cundall, Foster+ Partners, Hilson Moran, HOK, and Robin Partington Architects to name but a few.

www.newforma.co.uk