How contractors can break down recruitment barriers and ensure a sustainable future

10 October 2023

Simon Barlow, Managing Director at United Kingdom-based demolition contractor Rye Group, discusses the skills shortage affecting the demolition industry and offers insight into how demolition contractors, no matter where in the world they are based, can attract new talent.

A hard hat (PHOTO: Adobe Stock/Sasint)

Like many niche areas within construction, demolition is currently facing a significant skills shortage – referred to by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors as “the most severe since 2007”.

The truth is that – in light of an aging workforce further decimated by Covid and recent geopolitical events – we will need at least 225,000 additional construction workers here in the UK by 2027 if we are to successfully tackle the housing crisis.

The surprisingly green practice of demolition plays a huge part in this, helping to replace outdated or dilapidated structures with green open spaces, modern developments and higher-density residential blocks – all of which can transform underutilised areas sustainably whilst successfully meeting growing demand.

The problem is, not many people know this, making it increasingly difficult to get new talent on board.

Struggling to recruit struggling to recruit: the construction and demolition skills shortage

Despite the clear need for new workers to keep demolition going, a recent review by the UK Government revealed that vacancies within construction have gone up by 65% since 2020, with interest in demolition specifically remaining strikingly low.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his cabinet seem to be doing very little to reignite interest in the built-environment sector, championing tertiary talents like IT and AI development, instead. It seems, then, that the onus is on employers and companies themselves to prevent skilled trades like demolition from falling into ruin.

How the demolition sector can attract Gen Z talent

The question is, how can the crumbling demolition sector – infamous for what is often, unfairly, perceived as blind destruction – attract new talent to guarantee the future? It seems sustainability may be the answer.

Surveys have revealed that 70% of Gen Z workers (born between 1997 and 2012) are more likely to join a company with a strong green footprint, with four in ten admitting that they would reject work for ethical reasons.

In other words, you could be losing out on a large chunk of the future talent pool if you fail to align with young people’s green ambitions and show it.

In a job market saturated with millions of degrees and over-qualified people, opening up new practical opportunities in demolition and construction is one of the best ways to bridge the gap between unfamiliarity and a desire to get stuck in.

Not only do apprenticeships help to make skilled sectors like demolition more visible to prospective candidates whilst filling invaluable roles, but they also provide a unique chance for employers and existing employees to change the face of their industry and reputation through direct, on-the-job training.

Demolition - a trainee’s view 19-year-old Kane Moran talks us through his day-to-day job activity at British contractor the Rye Group

Over half (56%) of the UK’s youngest demographic feel motivated by leaders able to champion sustainable, eco-friendly initiatives, so shadowing someone as they actually do an eco-friendly job is one of the most sure-fire ways to tackle prejudice whilst also resolving skill-shortage challenges.

It’s a win-win situation. Young people gain access to better futures by embarking upon a promising career path, as demolition gets the face lift it needs to continue sustainably beyond 2023 – no longer plagued by concerns about being understaffed.

What’s more, any new, young talent brought in through the apprenticeship route is likely to come with further green insights and a greater commitment to our planet than that showcased by previous generations, further safeguarding the future of demolition as a sustainable, long-lasting construction practice.

How to ensure a sustainable future for demolition

If one thing is clear, it’s that we need a new generation of skilled demolition workers to keep driving green progress and keep things ticking over, in terms of both activity and reputation. Nevertheless, the way in which demolition training is advertised and delivered must improve in order to achieve success.

According to Youth Misspent, only 6% of young people have active ambitions to work in construction. Nevertheless, whilst 35% of those surveyed admitted that this was simply because they were put off by manual work, 34% confessed that it was because they lacked the right skills.

Likewise, 28% of the young respondents stated that they felt a lack of knowledge about the careers available to them in the industry as a whole was holding them back.

If employers were able to demonstrate that they had a solid, structured apprenticeship strategy that would lead to concrete outcomes and a reliable career path, most of these doubts would be soothed, potentially leading to a substantial increase in the amount of interest that demolition receives.

This just goes to show that, with the right impetus from employers when it comes to advertising opportunities and offering adequate training, it is entirely possible to turn things around.

The number of apprentices in construction actually increased for the first time in six years in February this year, with 26,1000 apprenticeships starting by July 2022.

It’s time demolition did something to crush these numbers and boost its own ranks.

An excavator with a demolition attachment tearing down a building
Breaking down barriers and overcoming misconceptions

Another survey led by NBS in 2022 came up with contradictory statistics, revealing that 56% of 18- to 29-year-olds would, in fact, consider a career in construction if prospects were clear.

Almost a quarter of these were women. Although the outlook is somewhat unclear based on such conflicting data, there is one thing we can be sure of – there is talent out there ready to restore the demolition industry. We just need to learn how to target it.

Even with the right training in place, there are still challenges that must be overcome to completely resolve the current skills shortage.

First of all, more needs to be done to tackle the stigma that previous generations hold about working in construction.

Younger people recognise that degrees won’t buy you better prospects and higher salaries, but their parents or grandparents may still hold onto antiquated notions of academic-only success.

Although T-levels, which currently have a 95%+ success rate, are helping to tackle this, more needs to be done for older generations to catch up and stop dissuading against a career in construction.

The truth is that a career in demolition could pay upwards of £30,000 per annum after moving up the ranks. There are plenty of progression opportunities and skilled tasks involving everything from geology to engineering.

Apprenticeships are the perfect way to make this knowledge public, whilst also allowing young people to satisfy their green ambitions by contributing towards a healthier, more sustainable planet.

Demolishing stereotypes: The women working for gender equality in demolition Women in the industry talk to D&Ri about their experiences
Apprenticeship funding for employers: do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Then, there’s the issue of logistics. We need to think more about who will provide the training and who will pay for it.

In a report published by the Construction Industry Council (CNC) and Construction Leadership Council (CLC) this year, some employers shared their belief that apprentices should pay for their own training.

Although this may sound harsh, it is largely because if apprentices end their programmes early, without completing a final assessment, the employer themselves may be penalised.

Arguably, this is still a risk worth taking when you consider potential return on investment. Throughout the apprenticeship, you will still benefit from multiple hours of valuable labour at reduced cost and, if things do go according to plan, you’ll have a skilled workforce ready to up its environmental game and take on the future by the end of it.

Even in the worst-case scenario, you’ll have contributed towards a more positive industry reputation upon demystifying the green secrets behind demolition. Most companies in the UK can access up to 95% of their funding needs, with an upper limit of £27,000 for training, making apprenticeships a valid return on investment.

Relying on university courses like the MA in Demolition from the University of Wolverhampton alone simply won’t cut it if we are to achieve the numbers required to salvage demolition.

Employers need to get on board with the future, accelerating their training and incorporating younger members into their staff to tackle future talent shortages lurking on the horizon thanks to the need to keep up with technologies like VR, AR and AI.

Apprenticeships are the best way to pass the dual wreckage test: upskilling to keep the demolition industry alive as we also guarantee a greener future for our youth and our planet.

Embracing sustainability:  a vital cornerstone for the future

Apprenticeships in the demolition industry will not only address the skills crisis but will also help to lead the change towards more sustainable practices in the future.

Historically perceived as wasteful, demolition has long undergone a paradigm shift. By investing in training, companies can not only demonstrate this to the next generation, helping to propagate an image of sustainability, but also invest in their future by securing fresh commitment and perspective.

Apprentices, who are often more environmentally conscious than their more experienced colleagues, bring a renewed vigour to the industry and will safeguard its commitment to eco-friendly practices.

From salvaging reusable materials to implementing efficient waste management, young minds are at the forefront of shaping a greener future for demolition, with unique insights that push the barriers further towards sustainable innovation.

It’s all about investing in training with the goal of saving the industry as we save the planet.

Simon Barlow, Managing Director at Rye Group

About the author

Simon Barlow is the Managing Director and Founder of Rye Demolition, which has been the recipient of several high-profile industry awards, including the NFDC’s Sustainability Champion Award.

Simon is also the former Chairman of the London and Southern Counties region of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) and the current Chairman of the National Demolition Training Group (NDTG).

Rye Group hits carbon neutral target Long-term emissions goal achieved by the company
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