A recovery in Scotland's construction sector has been long awaited.
So it should be good news that leading firms are expecting growth. Last month the Scottish Building Federation said seven out of ten firms were now looking to recruit apprentices, while six out of ten had taken on trainees in the last year.
Construction has been slower to recover from the economic downturn than other sectors, so any green shoots are very welcome. But private construction company CCG is now warning skills shortages could hold back progress. While it, too, will be looking to recruit in the coming months, the Glasgow-based firm is warning a lack of suitable workers could restrict expansion. Over the next five to 10 years, a shortage of apprentices and graduates could mean many firms find vacancies difficult to fill, says chief executive and chairman Alistair Wylie.
Others in the industry have made similar comments, while in October recruitment agency Hays warned the construction of major infrastructure projects such as the Queensferry Crossing could be undermined. That warning was over the closely related engineering sector, but yesterday the Construction Industry Training Board signalled a UK-wide problem. Finding the right candidates for construction roles is proving tricky, the CITB said, despite the high unemployment count.
There is a long-term problem here, with the decline of traditional apprenticeships and a sense that many companies have seen them as a cost-saving measure rather than an investment in the future.
But in Scotland the problem has been exacerbated by the extent of previous contraction in the industry. Recent losses of construction workers should not be underestimated. The length and depth of the recession meant large numbers of experienced workers drifted from the industry in search of other sources of work. The imminent retirement of thousands of older workers is likely to aggravate the problem.
It would be dismaying if returning confidence and potential for growth was missed. When opportunities come, construction employers need to be ready to seize them. They can look to various sources: underemployment remains an issue, with many of those who are currently in part-time work in the industry willing and able to take on more. Those who have left to work in other trades could be tempted back.
Meanwhile, youth employment schemes across Scotland are working hard, particularly with those who have struggled in formal education, who are prepared for work through routes such as the Construction Skills Certification Scheme. The social and economic benefits that could flow from giving the young unemployed new opportunities and a stake in society extend beyond the firms and the workers involved.
Employers should take advantage of this. They must play their part too, by making more effort to launch or expand apprenticeship schemes, using them to develop the workforce of the tomorrow, not just as a source of cheap labour.
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