Lost generation: Why construction can’t afford to lose the over-50s


Solutions to the skills shortage usually focus on the younger generation – but are construction companies missing out on valuable experience among older workers? The statistics suggest so.


Over the next 10 years, almost 20 per cent of the construction industry workforce will retire. According to the CITB, this equates to about 406,000 people. At the same time, the industry faces a battle to attract young people and to retain its EU-born workers as the UK prepares to leave the European Union. These factors are coming together to create a perfect storm, with the battle to find skilled workers one of the biggest threats to the industry’s future growth. However, while school and college students are being courted to plug the gap, we should stop and ask: can more be done to keep some of the 400,000 older workers – those aged 50 and over -around for longer?


Striking stats

The government recognises that the country has an ageing population and it wants more people in their 50s and 60s staying in work for longer. At the start of February, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) unveiled its Fuller Working Lives initiative, which is designed to achieve this aim. Addressing parliament around the time of the initiative’s launch, work and pensions secretary Damian Hinds said: “In 2010, one in four of the working age population was aged 50 and over, and this is projected to increase to one in three by 2022. By 2035, people aged 50 and over will comprise half of the UK adult population.

“For the economy, adding just one year to people’s working lives could add 1 per cent to GDP per year; that would be equivalent to £18bn.”

Retaining an ageing workforce is a challenge for all industries, but the dropout rate in construction is remarkably high. Data collected for Fuller Working Lives shows nearly 30 per cent of men aged 45 will have left the construction industry by the time they hit 50. The average for all other sectors is just 2 per cent. The DWP also surveyed men aged 50-64 to find out why they left their last job. For those who had left construction, 46 per cent said it was because of ill health. This was significantly higher than in any other sector, including other manual and skilled areas such as mining and agriculture. The average across all sectors for men retiring for health reasons was just 25 per cent.

The second-most common reason for men leaving was retirement, which accounted for 26 per cent of leavers in construction. This was considerably lower than the average for all sectors, which was 39 per cent. Among women, the picture in terms of health is less clear, with no data provided on the numbers leaving for medical reasons. The DWP’s research reveals the two main reasons for women aged 50-64 leaving construction to be retirement (39 per cent of leavers) and dismissal or redundancy (18 per cent). This compares to 41 per cent and 14 per cent respectively for all sectors.

Between these two results, it’s clear that people are leaving the industry not because they want to, but because they are forced to. Construction, for those on site, is a physical job, and while working conditions have vastly improved in recent years, some amount of wear and tear on the body is perhaps inevitable. But to lose almost 50 per cent of an over-50 workforce to health problems is striking. Those forced out of the industry early don’t just leave behind vacancies – each person takes with them decades of experience and knowledge. This is something that even the best young workers will take years to build up, and it’s possible that some heritage skills, such as specialist stone working, could disappear altogether.

CITB director of policy Steve Radley says: “If we were able to hang on to a proportion of these people we could retain skills in the industry, especially at a time when we might be losing more people because of Brexit. We’d be hanging on to people who can help boost productivity and are motivated to work.” This is a view shared by Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail. “[Older workers] are highly skilled, and given the ageing profile of the industry and the huge skills gap, it is essential that their knowledge and experience is valued and utilised,” she says.

Major recommendations

Longer term, the industry is waking up to the fact that the health of construction workers needs to be improved. The Health in Construction Leadership Group is leading a drive to make construction not just a safe place to work but a healthy one, too. Increased automation and offsite manufacturing is set to reduce the physical toil of onsite work. But in the short term, there are smaller steps the industry can take to help some of those whose health prevents them from staying in the industry for longer. A report by the Chartered Institute of Building, Exploring the Impact of the Ageing Population on the Workforce and Built Environment, makes two key recommendations for how to accommodate older workers: changing the workplace and retraining people.

Retraining staff so they can take on supervisory or mentoring roles, or other less physically demanding onsite tasks, is a compelling option. It delivers a double benefit of retaining knowledge and skills while also passing them on to the newer generation of tradesmen and women. “Companies are going to be training apprentices like never before and older workers are ideal (for) this training,” says the Federation of Master Builders’ director of external affairs Sarah McMonagle. For this to be successful, there needs to be forward planning. The CITB’s Mr Radley says: “You need to start taking action when people are in their mid-40s. By the time they’re in their mid-50s they might no longer be able to carry on working. By then it’s too late.”

It would also require contractors to take a longer-term view, taking people off sites to retrain them so they can make a greater contribution in the future. This approach to retaining – making adaptations in the workplace – could have a much wider impact. The number one health reason for people leaving construction is musculoskeletal disorders. Years of heavy lifting, working in awkward positions and often working in damp and cold conditions leave many with chronic pain issues.

Robert Wilson is the managing director of Wilson Decorators in Glasgow and a majority of his workers are over 50, with some over 60. He says a few simple changes have helped his employees work comfortably for longer. “You’ve got to think smarter,” he says. “We use cherry-pickers instead of ladders and scaffolding, and instead of rubbing a wall down by hand we use machines.”

Someone else’s problem

The retention of older workers, then, doesn’t necessarily require huge changes in working practices – but it does require investment coupled with leadership, and this is where the problem seems to lie. Most large contractors rely on indirect labour, hiring subcontractors or using agencies that supply workers for one job at a time. It has been suggested that this pushes the responsibility for training and the overall wellbeing of the workforce down the supply chain.

“My view is that in industries where the labour supply is not managed by the main employer, then the workers are seen as someone else’s problem,” says Loughborough University ECI Royal Academy of Engineering professor Alistair Gibb. “A direct employer is more likely to be aware of the problems older workers face and do something about it.”

This arguably goes to the root of the skills problem in the industry, affecting workers of all ages. “Spending on training has actually dropped,” says the CIOB’s policy and public affairs officer Frances Marely. “We’re seeing some [tier one] contractors pushing the responsibility of training further downstream, leaving it up to subcontractors.”

Ms Cartmail believes a substantial change in approach to how the industry hires workers could make a difference. “The industry needs to be radically re-organised and the culture of working principally via agencies should end,” she says. “By contractors having a permanent workforce, they are more likely to develop a duty of care and have a genuine interest in the long-term welfare of their workers. Good-quality apprenticeships need to be scaled up alongside upskilling older workers.”

Construction is of course very sensitive to economic conditions, which encourages companies to employ a flexible workforce, allowing them to scale up and down as demand fluctuates. But this uncertainty can also inhibit investment.

Benefits of age diversity

Some contractors are beginning to address the issue in spite of short-term economic pressures. Morgan Sindall director of human resources Dawn Moore says the company is not just looking at those approaching retirement, but beyond it – 2.5 per cent of the contractor’s workforce is over 65 and it expects that number to increase.

“We have introduced changes, reviewing roles to see if they can be made more flexible, enhancing our occupational health and wellbeing programmes, which go far beyond those required by law, and are providing training for our management team on the benefits a diverse workforce brings,” she says.

Skanska UK also has flexible working and retraining programmes for older workers. The company’s talent and capability director Dan Forbes-Pepitone says older workers don’t just plug a skills gap – they actually improve the business.

“We consider diversity in the broadest sense, including age, and we now have five generations in our workforce – with 31 per cent over the age of 50,” he says. “We really value this diversity, as it brings a broad range of ideas and thinking and helps us to create more successful teams.”

The industry’s skills shortage needs a proper long-term solution, with better recruitment of young workers an understandable priority. But in the short term, the problem could be significantly eased by simply keeping older workers around for longer. Some companies, including Morgan Sindall, Skanska and SMEs like Wilson Decorators, are recognising this opportunity and appear to be reaping the benefits. But the worrying forecasts emphasises the need to do more.

Relatively simple changes in attitudes and working practices could see thousands of highly skilled and dedicated workers staying in construction. To make these changes would not just be an investment in the short term, but one for the long-term benefit of the industry. Retaining that experience and passing it on to the next generation could help plug the skills gap and, in the process, ensure newer workers are better prepared for their futures.

(Article source: Construction News)

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