Skills and employment - where next?
What will the post-Covid employment and skills landscape look like?
The current pandemic has seen huge changes to working life in most sectors. Within construction, we are adjusting to new challenges: remote on-boarding of new staff, recruiting for graduate and entry level positions in the current economic climate and planning for any potential engineering skills gap that may emerge as a lagging effect of Covid-19.
Amongst the results of the 2008 recession, two things stand out; first, a rapid shift in focus for many from design & build to maintenance, refit and refurb necessitating a transfer of skills, and second the loss of a generation of engineers which resulted in a skills gap. By 2015 there were severe shortages of intermediate through to principal level engineers due to both the 2008-9 intake of graduate engineers struggling to secure employment and so not developing in the usual way, and people made redundant leaving the industry not to return. The industry risks a similar outcome as a result of Covid-19.
Whilst government furlough and staff retention schemes lessen the risk of talent loss due to redundancy, to reduce the possibility of future skills shortages it will be necessary for companies offer suitable apprenticeship and staff development schemes, and ensure their plans to do so are in place as a priority, to avoid a repeat of the problems of last time.
Allowing engineers at a lower level to attend college or university on a day release scheme, helping to ensure that they are gaining relevant experience whilst obtaining a qualification will mean that by the time they graduate they should be at a relatively senior level in the business and so significantly reduce the risk of another skills gap appearing in the future.
Bringing new staff on board
We are now seeing virtual meetings and video interviews become more commonplace. Whilst this is definitely a positive sign in terms of businesses adapting to the necessary new measures put in place as a result of Covid-19, it is critical to ensure that the remote on-boarding process is carried out as effectively as possible to ensure staff retention.
When it comes to dealing with the employment of graduate and entry level engineering positions the difficulties that may be faced by companies is the lack of face to face contact and interaction not only during the on-boarding process but also the contact that would normally be critical to ensure adequate development of junior engineers during the early stages of their career. Businesses will have to adapt their on-boarding process of entry level positions to tackle this issue to ensure that staff can be retained and that new employees (particularly those for whom skills and career development are a priority) are given the required support in an online environment.
Businesses adopting a video conferencing approach to their meeting structure results in savings on office and travel, but the challenge remains that as more sites reopen they must follow social distancing guidelines wherever possible to make them safe for individuals and have procedures in place in advance to ensure this happens.
Whilst the key concern for the industry at the moment is navigating the effect of Covid-19 on working practices and its financial repercussions, there are other pressing employer concerns: the importance of Sustainability and Low Carbon/PassivHaus design relating to the overall reduction of carbon emissions from building services systems, or the issues that are being faced with upskilling the industry with regards to digital engineering and BIM and the fact that engineers of this generation should be familiar with Revit as a standard.
It is likely that the long-term effects of the virus will be a hindrance to all aspects of on-site work for the foreseeable future, which will necessitate new working practises and possibly more, not fewer, engineers to take up the additional load. Experience from the crash shows the industry the risk of losing skills and staff during disruption unless it makes plans now to address this.
Dominic Horne was a Building Services Engineer who made the jump to recruitment consultant with Energi People in February 2020.