Training for construction workers is essential, but employment isn’t the answer

There are approximately one million self-employed people working in construction – that’s close to half the total number of those working in the entire sector. These freelance workers are integral to the success of the construction industry – a vital sector for the UK economy.


Earlier this week the Government-appointed Construction Leadership Council (CLC) called for a shift away from self-employment, towards greater direct employment. The Council made a series of recommendations, of which we want to focus on two:

  1. That we need highly trained staff to keep up with the rapid, technology driven changes that are re-shaping the industry, and;
  2. That the best way to achieve this is to ensure construction professionals are directly employed.

We agree on the first, and strongly disagree on the second.

Self-employment enables construction firms to be more productive, more dynamic, avoid idle ‘downtime’ and make labour cost savings of up to 86 per cent. You don’t have to take my word for it. Professor Andrew Burke at Trinity College Dublin has written three reports on the economic role of freelancers in the construction industry. Burke found that by using self-employed workers, firms are able to ‘de-risk’ construction ventures, increase total industry output and boost economic activity.

This is what the CLC Future Skills report happily overlooked when they called for more firms to employ staff, rather than make use of the specialist skills of the self-employed. The reality is that traditional nine-to-five employment doesn’t always work in construction. Each build is made up of different stages and each stage requires different specialisms. It doesn’t make sense to employ bricklayers, electricians, architects or plasterers on a permanent basis, when each of them will only be required for a specific part of the project.

That is not to say that the CLC aren’t right to highlight the need for training and, specifically, the need to develop digital skills. We can all agree that maintaining a skilled workforce is crucial for the future of the industry. But the challenges of the 21st Century will not be met by reverting to the working practices of the 20th. Instead, we must think about dynamic training solutions that will work for – not against – the self-employed.

Training grants could be made available directly to self-employed workers. Tax relief could be applied to those who take time off work to train. Advice could be made available to self-employed construction workers on what training they will need if they want to maximise their earnings. These are the kind of recommendations that are worth considering.

The construction industry should show its appreciation for the self-employed workers that are its lifeblood. It should recognise the vital role they play and think creatively about how it can give them the skills the sector will need over the next few decades.

In the foreword to the CLC report, Mark Reynolds and John O’Connor say, “we must seize the opportunity to actively challenge the poor image of construction, transform sector productivity, advance quality, and create a truly sustainable and diverse industry.” We couldn’t agree more, but self-employment must be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Meet the author

Andy Chamberlain

Deputy Director of Policy and External Affairs