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How can we make work in construction trendy?

March 25th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

For some reason the construction industry is not a sexy research area. Motor cars, yes, machine tools, yes, the computer industry, yes, yes, yes. But poor old construction, boring. Yet in economic terms, construction could be seen as the most important sector in Europe.

Our initial research under the Learning Layers project reveals some interesting contradictions. The construction industry is probably the biggest victim of the present recession. Even the neo liberal UK government is now taking actions to stimulate house building – through the partial nationalisation of mortgage debts. Probably an emphasis on infrastructure projects or on social housing would have had a bigger impact and would have avoided the risk of another house price bubble. But the fact they are doing anything at all shows the problem.

But whilst the recession has badly hit profitability and employment another concern has arisen in our interviews with construction companies. Managers are severely worried about the ability to recruit new trainees and particularly to recruit the better educated apprentices they see as critical to cope with the increasing use of technology in construction. Managers point to the major issue as being the image of the industry – just as in research they consider the industry not to be sufficiently sexy. They are less likely to discuss issues such as wages, opportunities for progression or just the sheer hard physical work involved in many construction trades. Having said that, reality may be very different from practice in other images which have a positive image. Work in the games industry can be hard, poorly paid and boring. And for every kid who makes a fortune out of a mobile app, thousands make no money at all.

Either way they are right in that there will almost certainly be demand for new skills to deal with technology – both in the uses of technology for construction but perhaps more important the changing materials being used in building today, not least due to ecologiocal and energy saving concerns and legislation. Whilst improving initial education training programmes is one response and attempting to improve the image of the industry, the big challenge may be to improve research and development and to develop more continuous training for existing employees. In this short extract form previous research, below, we provide an overview of the industry in Europe and Germany, together with issues in how training – or informal learning – might be improved.

The total turnover of the construction industry in 2010 (EU27) was 1186 billion Euros forming 9,7% of the GDP in 2010 (EU27). The construction industry is the biggest industrial employer in Europe with 13,9 million operatives making up 6,6% of the total employment in EU27. In addition it has a substantial influence on other industries represented by a multiplier effect. According to a study by the European Commission, 1 person working in the construction industry is responsible for 2 further persons working in other sectors. Therefore, it is estimated that 41,7 million workers in the EU depend, directly or indirectly, on the construction sector. Out of the 3,1 million enterprises 95% are SMEs with fewer than 20 and 93% with fewer than 10 operatives.   The level of investment in R&D in the European construction sector is low compared to other sectors. The construction sector only invests a small portion of its total production value in research, development, and innovation.

The developments of new processes and materials provide substantial challenges for the construction industry. The traditional educational and training methods are proving to be insufficient as the rapid emergence of new skill and quality requirements (for example those related to green building techniques) require much faster involvement and action on all three levels (individual, organisational and cluster) in order to react quickly to these changes and exploit opportunities. Without this the market potential is hampered by lack of innovation skills and training gaps (Dittrich, Deitmer 2003). The increased rate of technical change introduces greater uncertainty for firms, which, in turn, demands an increased capacity for problem solving skills (Toner 2011, 7). This situation is aggravated in some fast developing European Regions because skilled craftspeople are missing. Therefore there is increasing need for rapid re- and upskilling of the building workforce across the construction cluster.

The construction industry in Germany is one of the country’s most stable economic sectors. Providing jobs to more than 2,2 million people it holds a market share of 21% making the German construction sector the largest in the EU27 in terms of production value. In Germany the federal states, enterprises and the apprentices share the costs of the dual education system (practical training in schools and on-site training). The German compensation fund for construction industry SOKA-BAU reported a total of 270 million Euros of training allowances and job training costs in 2010 making it just a little more than 0,1% of the total production value. In fact, the building trade has one of the lowest participation rates for employees towards further training provision than any other sector (TNS INFRATEST 2008). This is because much of the formal training offering is only weakly connected with real work tasks. The cost pressure in building enterprises limits chances for time-consuming training measures far away from the workplace (Schulte, Spöttl, 2009). Any mobile support for learning and informing at the work place would be welcomed by companies as well as by building workers themselves. With enterprises paying for all the costs associated with the on-the-job training, SMEs need a cost effective solution to overcome the issues that occur with the rapid development in the technologies, processes and materials.

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