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Construction’s deepening skills crisis

Project managers are in short supply across the construction industry

By Mark van Dijk

, |

Construction’s deepening skills crisis

Project managers are in short supply across the construction industry

By Mark van Dijk

, |

4 min read

When the government recently published a new proposed list of critical skills, or high-demand occupations, which would make it easier for certain foreign workers to get visas to work and live in South Africa, ‘project manager’ was a recurring theme across industries. Construction – which has suffered a severe project management skills shortage for years – emerged as a particular problem area.

The value of project managers

You don’t have to work too long in the construction or property field to realise what a huge difference a good project manager can make. A landmark 1997 survey of executives in charge of international construction of large US-based contractors listed project management capability as one of the most important strengths a construction company can have.

Yet by 2009, a University of Johannesburg study was waving a huge red flag around South Africa’s skills shortage in this exact area. ‘Lack of effective management during their early stages is a major cause of business failure for small and medium-sized contractors,’ the study authors warned. ‘Owners tend to manage their businesses themselves as a measure of reducing operational costs. Poor record-keeping is also a cause for start-up business failure. In most cases, this is not only due to the low priority attached by new and fresh entrepreneurs, but also a lack of basic business management skills.’

Now, in the Covid-blighted year of 2021, the business risk is greater and the skills shortage problem more acute than ever. The Department of Higher Education & Training, which released that List of Occupations in High Demand report, warned that the construction sector is ‘forecasted to remain at a negative growth rate for two to three years post lockdown’. (However, it pointed out, South Africa’s economic recovery plan is likely to give infrastructure projects high priority, which could trigger a faster recovery.)

A universal challenge

The skills shortage problem – especially around project management – is neither new, nor is it uniquely South African.

A 2019 Wits University research paper found that, after artisans (35%), project managers (18%) were the hardest vacancies to fill in the building industry. The shortage is so severe that, on many building sites, engineers routinely find themselves acting as project managers – even though they often lack specialised project management training.

In 2017, online educator GetSmarter noted that nearly 70% of South African organisations (across industries) ‘have a career path for those engaged in project management training’, while the South African Medium-Term Expenditure Framework has R845 billion set aside for public sector infrastructure projects.

It goes back even further. In 2015, US project management software company RedTeam wailed: ‘Where are the construction project managers? The construction industry is facing a labour shortage,’ it lamented, ‘and project managers are among the top three hardest to find of skilled workers. Four out of five organisations report that they are struggling to find qualified PMs, and more than 20% of PMs are approaching retirement age and will need replacing.’

In 2014, Sean Jones, a director at black-owned artisan training company Artisan Training Institute (ATI), told Engineering News that the South African construction industry was facing severe problems around construction project delivery.

‘We are hearing about serious delays in projects, lack of skills, and low levels of worker participation,’ Jones said at the time. ‘Given these factors, it is a distinct possibility that some of the bigger projects, which form part of government’s current Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), will be badly constructed, or simply take too long to complete.’

That was seven years ago.

What’s the solution?

Little has changed. Tim Stranks, a consultant at UK recruitment services firm Macdonald & Company, recently pointed to The UK Employer Skills Survey, which found that the construction sector has the most vacancies based in skills shortages and the third-highest rate of hard-to-fill jobs.

‘There has always been a skills shortage in construction,’ Stranks shrugged. ‘Good, highly skilled, and highly experienced construction managers are hard to find. It has become more difficult to fill such vacancies since 2014. The Global Financial Crisis and ensuing recession hit the industry hard. Younger workers quit construction. Older employees are now approaching retirement. Youngsters have been shunning the sector. The result is a shortage in skilled staff that could take years to close.’

Unfortunately, the construction industry is notoriously poor at providing structured learning and training environments. Major players tend to subcontract skills like bricklaying (so have zero incentive to provide training and development), while – as MDA Law co-founder Ian Massey wrote in a recent opinion piece – there are ‘serious deficiencies’ when it comes to management-level training too.

‘The decision-makers who decide what is an appropriate and satisfactory form of qualification to satisfy the needs of industry and commerce appear not to understand what it takes to be a competent operator in the field of construction,’ Massey wrote. ‘The view appears to be that having a degree or a college diploma is enough.’

It’s not, obviously. As Massey said – and as the Department of Higher Education & Training’s List of Occupations in High Demand report highlights – South Africa’s construction industry needs ‘more structure to ensure that we develop competent, skilled people to strengthen our local industry, and who can compete on the international stage.’

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