What options are open to you in the UK’s construction sector?
From Civvy Street Magazine, February 2014
Royal Engineers recently transformed some dusty Kenyan outback near Laikipia Air Base into the purpose-built British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), a high-specifications Military hub at the sharp end of British Military activities in the country. Not only was it all built from scratch, from foundations through to final finish, it had to be done within a three month timeframe and a budget of just £185,000–in a foreign country where local supply chains, language barriers and 35 degree Celsius heat were definitely not what you’d find in the UK!
According to Major James Cackett, officer commanding 30 Armoured Enginer Squadron (30 AES), 26 Engineer Regiment, the project pushed his team to their limits, but nevertheless had its plus points. “The squadron got to work solidly on its trades for 12 weeks, so it’s been really good for honing techniques,” he explained. “It was a huge project which requires us to use the whole skill set including designing, planning, building and managing resources.”
Impressive though the construction of BATUK is, it somewhat pales in comparison to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. The main base for Military operations in the country, Bastion has its own airport and facilities including refuge incinerators, a water-bottling plant, fire station and ‘bus service’, plus a perimeter wall that’s now almost 40km long–making it roughly the size of Reading. Frankly, Bastion’s unlikely to win any awards for its functional architecture (consisting mostly of tents and converted ISO freight containers), but it works and it continues to be a home away from home for between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
Building a Civilian Career
What BATUK and Bastion both show, of course, is that the Royal Engineers (main providers of construction trades and professions to all three Armed Forces) are always ready to take on a challenge, and have the kind of experience that will put them well ahead of their civilian peers. If you’re currently at some point in your two-year resettlement period, then the news is good; according to the 2012-2016 Report from the Construction Skills Network (CSN), “construction employment… will start to grow again in 2014 to reach just under 2.6 million by 2016.”
Admittedly, the report estimates that construction output by 2016 will “still only (be) 95% of its 2007 peak”, and that “the annual recruitment requirement (ARR) for the 2012 to 2016 period, at around 46,000, is a little up on that predicted for the 2011 to 2015 period, but it remains well down on that seen during the boom years of close to 90,000.” The report adds: “For some of the traditional construction trades, such as bricklayers, long-term changes in construction processes, as much as the weak performance of their primary sectors, may constrain workforce growth going forward.”
Yet there is good news: five regions were expected to outperform the UK average (1.4%) in construction output terms over the five years to 2016: the East of England (2.9%), Greater London (2.5%), the South East and South West (both 2.2%) and Northern Ireland (2.1%). That said, Wales is said to have the strongest growth in employment, thanks in part to its greater emphasis in labour-intensive repair and maintenance. (Wales and Scotland were estimated to be close to the UK average, although their devolved administrations have directed more public finance towards new infrastructure projects.
Filling the Gaps
In common with many other sectors, the UK’s construction industry faces a growing skills shortfall thanks to the ageing nature of its workforce. The CSN report is not alone in noting a lack of young entrants into not just “the trades” but also white collar professions such as architecture, mechanical and civil engineering – which could lose up to a fifth of their personnel to retirement within the next decade.
According to Training and Skills in the Construction Sector (a report commissioned by ConstructionSkills, the Sector Skills Council for the construction industry) an average of 50,000 construction workers will be needed every year over the next few years to cope with both new and existing vacancies.
Regardless of your qualifications – whether we’re talking NVQs at level 2 and 3, or a first degree or post-graduate qualification in an engineering discipline – if you’re leaving the Royal Engineers with enviable skills, experience and unique on-the-job training to offer civilian employers; that said, any evidence of managerial experience could be particularly attractive.
Not Standing Still
Even if you’re coming from a Royal Engineers background, you need to be serious about establishing a civilian career in construction – which, of course, includes making the best of your Resettlement. The Career Transition Partnership offers a wide range of courses in construction-related trades and skills (from bricklaying to driving 360 Excavators, and from plant management to Health and Safety); some are ideal for beginners, others for those of you looking to enhance or widen your skills.
At the very least, if you’re intending to work on site, you should ensure that you’re up to date with the appropriate Construction Skills Certificate Scheme (CSCS) card or Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) card. Both schemes are administered by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), and were introduced to help improve skills, health and safety within the sector. Most contractors and construction clients now insist that workers hold the appropriate CSCS or CPCS card, if only as proof of your occupational competence.
Last year, a CITB study found that more than two fifths (42%) of construction firms are currently struggling to recruit workers with the right skills, with nearly one in five admitting it is hampering their growth and one in five claiming that the lack of talent is putting them at risk of going under. This “time bomb” may be of concern to the industry as a whole, but it’s certainly good news for anyone from the Armed Forces who is considering construction on their return to civvy street.