Rising fuel and energy costs, increased materials costs, and a significant skills shortage means the situation has never been more challenging for field service management. Some of these challenges are beyond the control of businesses, but the industry has to find ways to deal with the lack of sufficiently skilled field operatives upon which its success is based.
The current shortage of tradespeople means competition for skills is fierce, and the field service sector has to compete with attractive offers from the construction industry and other employers, to secure the best people. Russell Thompson, Chair at Direct Works says: “We are currently seeing trade operatives moving around the sector as the draw of increased salaries is creating gaps which are proving difficult to fill.” Construction Skills Network (CSN) data, published by CITB suggests the construction industry as a whole will need to attract an additional 217,000 new recruits by 2025.
What are the reasons behind the shortage?
Brexit meant that many non-UK born skilled trades professionals have now left the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), employment in construction reduced from 2.3m in 2017 to 2.1m by the end of 2020. Within this, there was 4% decline in the number of UK-born construction workers, and a massive 42% decline in EU-born workers.
The average age of skilled tradespeople is going up, and fewer young people are being brought into the trades. One reason might be that traditional trades are not attractive to digital natives – young people have grown up with technology and expect it to be part of their future working life.
Skilled trades require lengthy training programmes to gain the right experience – apprenticeships are the traditional route in, but the increasing expectation of a university education for many means that there aren’t enough young people seeking training for skilled trades.
So how can we make sure more young people are attracted to training in trade professions?
Digital natives expect to use digital solutions. Modern field service companies are increasingly turning to powerful digital solutions and using a tablet or other connected device as part of the normal working day is increasingly common. One of Advanced’s clients, Allan Wornes, ICT Developer with South Gloucestershire Council has noted: “Giving field workers a good quality device is worth 100 hours of training.”
Higher wages have already been driven by the skills shortage, but ensuring that young people can see an attractive future career path, with good wages and other benefits, will make a difference. Career progression depends on effective performance management and digital solutions support on-going and two-way communication for enhanced support, feedback and training. Instead of waiting for an annual review, continuous performance management makes it easier to spot problems or areas of weakness for more timely interventions such as training and peer mentoring. Operatives feel properly supported, and can see that their dreams and ambitions are being invested in. It also helps managers see and understand why some jobs take longer than others, impacting efficiency, and put measures in place to help operatives in these situations.
Beyond renumeration and benefits, work brings a sense of purpose. Young people want to feel like what they do matters, so it’s important that they understand the value of having a trade and how they can enhance the lives of others. Digital solutions can improve the quality of their working day. They will spend less time sitting in traffic or repeatedly returning to base because they weren’t fully prepared with the right kit, and more time focusing on their trade. This is the reason they chose to learn those skills in the first place, and they want to use them to help others.
Young people are very environmentally-aware and want to be part of a greener future for the planet. New builds are already incorporating clean energy, with solar panels, air and ground source heat pumps, and electric vehicle charging points. New entrants to the trades will need to be trained in the installation, maintenance and repairs of new green technologies and they will be playing an active role in making the world a better place for future generations. Digital field service technology helps to support a green agenda day-to-day. They support zero-paper policies, with reduced waste and printing costs. Dynamic resource scheduling helps to optimise journeys, using less fuel and creating less pollution from fossil fuelled vehicles. Electric vehicle fleets also require journey optimisation as the cost, range and frequency of charging has to be factored in.
The government has introduced a visa scheme to try and attract EU-based workers into the UK, but that won’t be enough to fix the problem. The field service sector has to invest in the training of new, young operatives in order to build a sustainable skills pipeline for the future. Employers need to understand what will motivate young people to want to train in a trade, and part of that is feeling valued. In his speech at the 2021 CBI conference, Sir Keir Starmer said, ““In my view, we don’t value technical and vocational skills nearly enough.” People who can fix things, install, maintain and upgrade them, are vitally important for the safety, health and wellbeing of citizens everywhere.
Employers also need to take a fresh approach to diversity, and specifically seek to attract more females into field operative roles. Women make up roughly half of the population, and currently around 14% of construction industry professionals are female – this represents a significant increase on previous decades but there is still a lot of untapped potential talent available.
Apprenticeship opportunities must be positioned as a competitive alternative to a university education. If parents feel that their child will be able to have a better career and prospects following a route into a trade, that will permeate into the ambitions and plans of young people. A viable career path should mean that a skilled carpenter or plumber can choose to stay hands-on or move into management and become a respected business leader.
With only around 3% of 18-24 year olds currently looking at jobs in construction, Russell Thompson says it is essential that there is an holistic employee value proposition (EVP) to attract more young people, and retain current operatives. This includes benchmarked salaries, increased holiday allowances, sick pay, pensions, health care and subsidised services, alongside retention bonuses and referral payments if they recommend the organisation to others.
Field service management must take the lead in solving this problem for itself, not only by poaching skills from the construction industry, but by attracting, engaging with, and retaining skilled talent for themselves. This means creating a great EVP, communicating positive messages about working in the sector and convincing the next generation that getting their hands dirty can lead to a fulfilling and prosperous career.