Twitter. It’s grand.

No sooner had Class Of Your Own Founder, Alison Watson, put out a request for help to find AEC work experience placements for 30 Manchester secondary school students, the retweets came thick and fast.

Nicest of all was a phone call from Simon Owen, a specialist recruitment consultant in Leeds who also took the trouble to dig out Alison’s contact details from our website and give her a call. As they were chatting, it occurred to her that Simon would have a real handle on skills gaps with the industry. Sure enough, Simon, a regular blogger, sent the following…. many thanks Simon.

“No two ways about it, we are in a bit of a mess from an economic point of view, but there are signs we are either coming out of it to some extent or being more proficient at coping with it. More likely is that it is a mixture of the two and will be for some time with us all shifting from coping to recovery.

It was announced at the beginning of February that civil engineering has seen the first increase in work orders since the second quarter of 2008. This is reflected by my colleagues experience as recruitment consultant focused on that division in Yorkshire for the last 13 years who has seen a steady rise in opportunities registered over the last 3 months.

Personally, I have been working within the building services sector for slightly longer and we have both noticed a very similar, but slightly alarming trend despite the face value positivity. A number of clients in those areas have requested staff with 2-5 years experience, degree’s and a consistent work history working on very specific schemes. If you visit our website you will no doubt see listings for several such positions there.

This is all good, surely? Hmm, let us think about it for a moment starting with a quick history lesson. From an overview perspective, it is Spring 2008 and all appears well within construction; Summer 2008 and there are signs that things are going to change… Autumn and the credit crunch is a common phrase which when used is generally swiftly followed by others; redundancy and short-time working.

The first people to go were typically those who would be considered as overheads on the business and freelance staff. The group labelled as overheads was generally those at the beginning of their career such as graduates and trainees, those in the twilight (typically over 55 years of age) and middle management who were project-focused rather than business development.

So what has the quick history lesson told us?

There have been accusations made from some quarters that the industry independently, but as one, took the action of removing its succession planning by losing the majority of its trainees, while at the same time losing a significant bank of experience and technical expertise that it would need to bring people through in the future.

While not every employer took this approach, here we are over three years down the line and the people that the industry wants now that optimism is starting to return are exactly those who were sent away when it first departed.

I say that because Engineers with 2-5 years experience, degree’s and a consistent work history working on very specific schemes are never easy to find and less so now. Why? For someone to have 2-3 years experience they will need to have been recruited while the recession was at its peak and had opportunity to work on the same projects that the potential employer is interested in.

For the candidate to have 5 years experience and solid work history, they will need to have survived several rounds of redundancy, or found work again quickly if it happened to them. In summary, these people are not going to be easy to find, because there are not many of them out there and those that are will have been protected from the economic mayhem and possibly have a high degree of loyalty to their employers as a result.

So how do we fill the gap?

There are several options open to us:

  • Search long and hard for someone that meets this description, make them a potentially inflated offer hoping that they will come on board while risking your existing staff finding out that your structure has been altered somewhat. The other hitch with this strategy is that you are hoping that a company will have invested in the person you want to recruit during the tough times and let them go without a struggle, you could be mistaken…
  • Employ someone with more experience than you would like and who has been working through the recession. This has the issue that they will command a higher salary than your budget, while you will probably have to alter the role you wish to fill to keep them motivated.
  • Take on someone of a more senior level who has either been out of the industry for a spell or has fragmented work history over the last couple of years and look for them to trade salary expectations for training to get back up to speed with the industry. This in the short term addresses the issue of salary expectations and having someone do the calculations while also giving someone the opportunity to get back in to the business.
  • Recruit an Apprentice and take advantage of government incentives to do so. Not an immediate fix, but certainly good for the long term and you also have the benefit of being able to use it as a marketing opportunity with clients and the community at large. We’ve been working on this in a small way ( and have enjoyed very positive feedback from our competitors, clients, candidates and the wider business community.

None of the choices above are ideal; it is neither what the employer needs, nor in many respects, anyone recruited under these circumstances would want; it is a compromise scenario for all.

Ultimately though, the industry has to find its own way forward and two of these options will be better for the community as a whole. The big question is whether enough people within the industry, that is both employers and employees, are willing to make those choices and provide those opportunities?”

Simon Owen is Principal Consultant at Calibre Search, a specialist recruitment consultancy operating in the Built Environment, FM / Building Maintenance, HVAC / Refrigeration and Marketing sectors throughout the UK.

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