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Digging a new tunnel on the £15bn London Crossrail route

A computer model to tackle skills shortages holding back the recovery of the UK construction industry is being pioneered in Manchester.

The model, developed by the Greater Manchester chamber of commerce, estimates the city needs to find 10,000 skilled workers in the next year to meet demand, and has piqued the interest of the Cabinet Office.

The researchers hope it could be used to predict national demand, which has a “lumpiness” problem. Skilled workers are laid off in a downturn and unavailable when the economy improves.

Tunnelling is a case in point – the industry wants to retain skilled staff after the end of the Crossrail project in London because they will be needed for the High Speed 2 north-south rail link.

Builders, too, have said they do not have enough skilled employees to keep up with demand for houses and offices as recovery takes hold. Wages for some crafts are 40 per cent up year on year.

The Manchester research backs up these complaints. It shows the UK is training too many bricklayers and not enough specialists in areas such as cladding and steel erection, which are more in demand for today’s buildings.

In general, the skills problem is less acute in London, where a steady flow of work ensures that specialists are retained. London and the southeast saw 70 per cent more construction starts by value in the first half of 2013 compared with the northwest, and public infrastructure investment per capita in London is 20 times higher.

Although UK infrastructure spending remains hugely skewed towards London and the southeast, a 632 per cent increase in Greater Manchester construction projects is forecast over the next two years.

Some £15.6bn of construction work is forecast between 2013 and 2017 in Greater Manchester. Of the £11bn of new schemes, half will be housing.

The chamber has worked with the Construction Industry Training Board to estimate the labour force required to deliver them.

Christian Spence, who co-ordinated the research at the chamber, said it would be hard to find the 10,000 extra skilled workers needed by March 2014, when there would be 64,000 construction jobs in the city.

Gary Wintersgill, managing director of Kier Construction in the North, said the model was, nonetheless, a “huge step forward”. “One of the key challenges with managing any business is firstly understanding your pipeline of opportunities and then aligning your resources to bid for and deliver them.”

The model also revealed that a third of building training courses in the city are not “fit for purpose”.

Mr Spence said the college system needed to change from payment by supplying the demands of students – who often chose bricklaying – to supplying the demands of industry.

Almost a third of courses do not involve work experience on a building site, considered necessary by most employers.

Mr Spence also said he had met Cabinet Office officials. “The scale of the project is increasing quickly with national government now looking closely at our work and how it could be rolled out nationwide,” he said.

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