Skills shortages in the construction sector continue to worsen, according to figures from the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) relating to the fourth quarter of 2016. Whilst these findings focus on small to medium enterprises (SMEs), they also reflect concerns across the wider industry.

Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB, explained: “We’ve been experiencing a severe shortage of bricklayers and carpenters for quite some time – these latest statistics show that skills shortages are now seeping into other key trades such as roofers and plumbers.

“Indeed, of the 15 key trades and occupations we monitor, 40 per cent show skills shortages at their highest point since we started to feel the effects of the skills crisis in 2013 when the industry bounced back post-downturn,” he added.

Such shortages have two key impacts. They make it difficult for construction companies to deliver their projects on time, and sometimes they are forced to turn work away because of a lack of resources. In parallel, a skills deficit increases costs as companies compete for the skilled workers that are available.

One element of managing this situation is to become as lean as possible in other areas of the business, with a view to increasing overall efficiency and profitability. This can also help to free up skilled staff from repetitive manual tasks that don’t make best use of their particular abilities.

Indeed, many construction companies have already taken measures in the respect, particularly in the deployment of information technology (IT). These include areas of their businesses that range from streamlining the bidding process through to transacting with supply chain partners.

For example, if the take-off and estimating processes are quicker and more accurate, there is more time for thorough adjudication and more chance of submitting a competitive, yet profitable bid. In this way, companies that are limited in how many jobs they can bid for can at least ‘cherry pick’ from the best tender invitations.

Once the work has been won it’s clearly essential to ensure the project delivers the profits that were anticipated from the estimate. Implementing project accounting / job costing software helps to keep an eye on the performance of each job – and respond quickly to any problems that may be highlighted.

Of course, the ability to transfer information directly from the estimate to the project accounting software also helps to save time and reduce the risk of errors.

To some extent, making better use of IT in winning and running jobs is an obvious area to address (though it’s surprising how many contractors are still trying to do this with spreadsheets). However, it’s also worth looking at other areas of the business that may be drain on resources.

At a time of skills shortages, for instance, it may be necessary to take on more sub-contract labour – which makes supplier management crucial to performance. This is an area where IT can make a significant difference.

Similarly, the transactions with those supply chain partners traditionally generate mounds of paperwork and masses of hours to process them. Introducing electronic trading (aka e-Invoicing) allows such documents to be exchanged electronically with a high degree of automated checking, thus minimising the input from people.

In all of these examples, and the many others that could be cited, the key theme is that the biggest benefits are achieved through the ‘digitisation’ of business areas that would otherwise be a drain on resources. As such, this approach to the use of IT in the business can play a significant role in helping to minimise the impacts of the skills shortages affecting the whole industry.

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