By David Cowans, Chief Executive of Places for People Group 

The government's recent moves to directly commission 13,000 new homes, set up a starter home fund and make planning reforms have once again put the emphasis on boosting housing supply. Inevitably, these have sparked much debate, but as this rumbles on, there is another hugely important issue which threatens to put a large spanner in the works of the Government's plans to build more homes - the growing skills gap in construction.

The latest RICS UK Construction Market Survey, warned that the construction industry's skills shortage is threatening to derail the government's housing and infrastructure programmes. Its Skills and Talent Director, Sally Speed cautioned that unless the government "urgently" addresses the shortage "some of its key housing and infrastructure programmes could soon face crippling delays and spiralling costs".  

The figures for Q4 2015 shows that the skills shortage continues to hamper growth and drive up wages throughout the industry. Bricklayers and quantity surveyors are reported to be in particularly short supply with 62% and 60% of chartered surveyors having difficulty sourcing these skills.

In the medium to long-term the lack of skilled workers puts the Government's ambitious targets of building one million new homes over the lifetime of this Parliament in jeopardy.

In the short-term the skills shortage causes wages to rise. Recruitment firm Hays' latest salary guide showed that UK construction professionals were receiving pay rises in excess of 10%.

Meanwhile the average construction wage growth of 3.6% was double the UK average.

As RICS have pointed this rise in labour cost is the main driver of price growth at present and is putting pressure on profit margins.

Increasing wages pushes up the cost of constructing new housing developments and contributes further to the increasing costs of new homes.

Trades and professions throughout the housing sector are feeling the impact as their workloads increase to compensate for the shortage. 

Replacing the 337,000 construction workers that left the industry during the recession is a massive challenge. Almost eight years since the recession started the construction workforce is still around 5% smaller now than it was prior to the recession.

The threat of the skills shortage saw ministers call on the Construction Leadership Council  to set up a review of what skills the construction industry need to provide the homes the nation needs. The review will be led by Mark Farmer former head of residential at Arcadis.

To help achieve this, there is an urgent need for more training, academies and apprenticeships for young people. We need to provide - and invest in - these opportunities for our next generation of workers. We need to seize the opportunity and work with government and industry partners to break down the barriers that could potentially hold back our sector.  

This isn't going to be easy and in some cases, there will need to be changes in mindset or culture, but whatever solution we choose, the key is to ensure that skills are front of mind on the boards of every organisation across all parts of the housebuilding sector.

While the Government has pledged to create three million apprenticeships by 2020 construction has historically always been a cyclical industry and both developers and contractors are rightfully fearful of taking on large numbers of staff to the payroll that they may not have jobs for in the coming years.

The CITB's Shared Apprenticeship Scheme has the potential to be a game-changer for the industry. A shared apprenticeship allows apprentices to work with a number of different employers in order to gain the skill sets they require to become qualified.

It has been set up to help employers who want to support the development of skills and train the workforce while working on regional contracts, but are not in a position to offer a full term apprenticeship.

Shared apprenticeships benefit apprentices by providing them with a wider range of skills from a number of employers allowing them to see the bigger picture of a construction project, receive a more rounded education and expand their network by putting them in the shop window of more potential long-term employers.

Following successful pilots in Lancashire, Merseyside and Wales the CITB is rolling out this programme across the UK.

Solving the skills shortage isn't just a job for the government - it's job that we must all take a role in if we are going to solve the housing shortage in this country.

Fixing this problem reminds me of an old ancient Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you can feed him for a lifetime.

If we provide our young people with houses then we give them shelter for today. Unless we teach them how to build houses we are going to run out for homes for future generations.

This blog was originally published on Inside Housing's website on 7 April and is available on their website.

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