The skill shortage

The skill shortage

At a time when employment in the construction sector is estimated to grow to 100 million by 2030, a shortage of skills threatens to thwart the construction industry’s upside. CW explores how that gap can be filled. Construction, spanning real estate and infrastructure, is India...

At a time when employment in the construction sector is estimated to grow to 100 million by 2030, a shortage of skills threatens to thwart the construction industry’s upside. CW explores how that gap can be filled. Construction, spanning real estate and infrastructure, is India’s second largest employer with a workforce of 71 million, according to Knight Frank India (KFI) and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ (RICS) 2023 report, Skilled Employment in Construction Sector in India. The National Skill Development Council estimates that 87 per cent of the construction industry’s employees are absorbed by the real-estate sector, while 13 per cent work in infrastructure. However, only 19 per cent of the 71-million workforce is skilled and that is a matter of concern, especially as employment in the construction sector is estimated to grow to 100 million by 2030 to meet growth targets. “While the larger proportion of unskilled and semi-skilled workers may be attributed to the labour-intensive feature of the sector, a fact that will continue to prevail, the proportion of highly skilled workers who are largely involved in project management, managerial and technology-led roles, etc, must rise in the near future to cater to industry expansion,” says Vivek Rathi, National Director Research, Knight Frank India. India has a huge need to skill and upskill human resources. “Skilled talent is imperative to deliver projects to quality, safety and time,” opines Dr C Jayakumar, Executive Vice President & Head - Corporate Human Resources, L&T. Geographic disparity Talent demand and supply surveys show that some skills are scarcer than others, both overall as well as across Tier-1 cities. For instance, infrastructure and manufacturing sector employers in Tier 1 cities posted 3.5-million blue-collar jobs over the past six months, according to WorkIndia. Mumbai accounted for 23 per cent of these jobs while Bengaluru came in a close second with a 21 per cent share. However, only 1.56 million people applied for these positions. Coming to job profiles, some cities are worse off than others. Bengaluru (27 per cent), Pune (19 per cent) and Chennai (17 per cent) had the most opportunities for machine operators while Delhi had highest percentage (28 per cent) of candidates applying for those positions. Bengaluru (26 per cent) and Mumbai (26 per cent) had the most opportunities for labour while Delhi had the highest percentage (32 per cent) of labour seeking jobs. CW dug deep to identify the reasons for the industry’s skill deficiency, and ways to overcome the talent scarcity. Fresher pains One of the biggest skilling challenges the industry is facing is that fresh civil engineering graduates are not industry-ready. But why? “Recent civil engineering graduates lack the practical expertise and real-life applications that are fundamental for effectively navigating the intricate obstacles that arise in practice,” says Anuj Puri, Chairman, ANAROCK Group. “Most fresh civil engineering graduates lack cutting-edge software and project management skills, soft skills and industry exposure,” adds Santhosh Kumar, Vice Chairman, ANAROCK Group. Behind this situation are traditional academic curricula that often don’t adequately cover modern construction techniques, project management methodologies, industry-specific software tools and best practices, and cutting-edge technologies, explains M Raj Reddy, Director, Construction Technicians Training Institute, National Academy of Construction. “Overall, there is a severe lack of hands-on experience and practical skills necessary for real-world projects. Civil engineering professionals also lack strong communication skills, teamwork and the problem-solving abilities needed to be effective in the workplace.” To align the curricula with industry needs, Puri endorses collaboration between academia and industry. “Academic institutions must incorporate more practical experience, internships and industry-relevant projects,” he says. “Site visits, guest lectures from industry experts and live projects are essential.” A finishing school programme for civil, architectural and electrical engineering graduates and final year students, on the lines of the one run by the National Academy of Construction, would also help impart employable skills, adds Reddy. Upskilling avenues Encouraging lifelong learning among civil engineers helps them stay updated with the latest trends and advancements. Among the key upskilling avenues, Kumar cites company-sponsored programmes, external training providers, online learning resources for specific roles and continuous learning through industry publications, conferences and government initiatives like Skill India. External training providers include the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India, Construction Skills Training Institutes, National Academy of Construction, Construction Sector Skill Council and Construction Industry Development Council. They offer a variety of programmes. For instance, the Construction Technicians Training Institute at the National Academy of Construction offers 90-day skill development courses and 15-day skill upgradation training for electricians, plumbers, painters, welders, bar benders, steel fixers and other categories, shares Reddy. Government-run Construction Skill Training Centres are helping to address the skill gap with an industry-relevant curriculum and training, delivered through state-of-the-art infrastructure, he adds. “They collaborate with construction companies, contractors and other stakeholders to facilitate job placements and apprenticeships for graduates.” The National Skill Training Institute (NSTI) is a premier institute run by the Directorate General of Training, Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. Of 33 functioning NSTIs, 19 are exclusively for women. Government schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana - Technical Institutes (PMKVY-TI), the Employment Enhancement Training Programme (EETP) and the National Employability Enhancement Mission (NEEM) have also helped address skill gaps, low confidence, efficiency, employability and workforce development, opines Reddy. Skilled workers tend to stay longer at the same site with marginal decreases in attrition rates. Additionally, Project NIPUN (National Initiative for Promoting Upskilling of Nirman workers) under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission aims to train over 100,000 construction workers through fresh skilling and upskilling programmes and even provide them with work opportunities overseas. Despite all these avenues, Reddy calls for construction academies in every state and skill development centres in every district to skill the workforce numbers the industry needs. Incentivising private players Some private-sector players are actively participating in skill development. For instance, Kumar points out that L&T is training India’s youth with a specific focus on rural school dropouts. Through eight Construction Skills Training Institutes, L&T offers free vocational training courses and skill-building activities, facilitating employability. These initiatives extend to L&T construction sites, offering opportunities for on-the-job learning, internships and apprenticeships to the unorganised workforce. “Our Construction Skills Training Institutes have trained over 300,000 youth,” says Dr Jayakumar. Reddy believes such involvement must be incentivised because private players bring industry expertise, practical insights and real-world experience to skill development initiatives. “Besides, they can contribute financial resources, technical expertise and infrastructure support to Construction Skill Training Centres,” he adds. “Creating awareness of the human resource benefits to private-sector players and tax incentives, grants, subsidies, etc, could help foster more collaboration.” Attraction-retention measures It is well known that civil engineers have preferred jobs in the IT sector as opposed to the construction sector. But this demand has dwindled of late, presenting civil engineers a golden opportunity to leverage their skills in the burgeoning construction industry, says Kumar. That said, to attract and retain talent, he points out that the industry needs to offer competitive compensation and benefits, a positive work culture, upskilling opportunities, project diversity and mentorship programmes. “Dignity of labour and good wages are vital to attract civil engineering graduates who are preferring the IT and service sectors,” adds Reddy. At L&T, programmes are designed to attract the best talent available as well as ring-fence and retain prime talent. “We have a tailored approach to onboarding fresh talent for long-term engagement and success,” shares Dr Jayakumar. “Our induction programme best practices include engagement and communication even before the joining date, comprehensive and structured orientation, involvement of the leadership for a view from the top, the buddy peer support mechanism, systematic feedback at 30 days, 60 days and 90 days post-joining and improvement, and a pre-joining campus engagement initiative for those recruited from premier institutes.” Retention efforts at L&T blend competitive benefits, digital engagement, personal growth opportunities and a commitment to employee health and wellness, all of which contribute to a supportive and dynamic work environment. Also, L&T runs a Leadership Development Academy, an Institute of Project Management and specialised centres to equip professionals to expertly manage project execution and develop specific competencies. Technical development programmes and engineering academies upskill employees in the latest technologies and methodologies. Career progression programmes and competency development initiatives underscore the intention to build a robust pipeline of skilled managers and technicians. Investments in enhancing functional capabilities are ongoing. Accreditation boost Reforming civil engineering as a profession would also help attract more talent. According to Vishwas Jain, Managing Director, CEG, “The position of architects in India was cemented by the passing of the Architects Act, 1972, whereby every project design needed to be signed off by an architect registered with the Council of Architecture. The strength of architects lies in their design and planning skills but implementation falls on structural engineers. Until today, architects are the face of the construction industry in India whereas engineers play a bigger role. What about certifying the structural stability of buildings? We need a bill to entrust engineers with this task.” For his part, Abhijeet M Kulkarni, Director, Structures, Buro Happold, urges the creation of an all-India governing body for practicing structural engineers and mandatory accreditation, saying this would help give the discipline the importance and salary levels it deserves vis-à-vis the work involved. Hybrid architects Architectural and structural engineering go hand in hand in the conceptualisation, planning and execution of infrastructure and real-estate projects. Typically, architects set the tone with creative designs with other disciplines following the design intent while ensuring structural safety and reliability. However, the complexity of projects being implemented today is increasing the demand for architects with building information modelling (BIM) and structural engineering skills. Professor (Dr) Deepak Bajaj, Director & Head of Institution, RICS School of Built Environment, Amity University, Noida, notes that this shift is primarily being driven by the rising complexity of construction projects. “In today’s world, where sustainability, cost-effectiveness, safety, resilience and efficiency are top priorities, professionals with integrated disciplinary knowledge are well placed to optimise designs, reduce material usage and assure compliance with changing building norms and laws,” he says. “It is always a ‘good practice’ for architects to consider the elementary aspects of structural designs while designing, especially in complex projects,” says Jairam Panch, Chief Operating Officer, Turner International. “Their knowledge of structural designs and engineering aspects would help ease construction and reduce the need to revisit the design or modify it due to critical structural challenges that may arise at a later date.” Consequently, “many architects are seeking further schooling or training in BIM and structural engineering to enhance their skill set and fulfil the industry’s changing expectations,” says Dr Bajaj. Panch points out that several architecture schools in India are incorporating structural engineering modules into their curriculum, creating a new breed of ‘hybrid’ architects with a strong foundation in both design and engineering principles. The RICS School of Built Environment offers specialised programmes that bridge the gap between architecture and structural engineering. The school also promotes industry contacts and ensures hands-on experience with real-world projects, ensuring that fresh graduates are not only academically competent but also industry-ready. However, not everyone is for this trend. “Structural engineering is best left to practising structural engineers with relevant experience and sound engineering knowledge,” says Sangeeta Wij, Managing Partner, SD Engineering Consultants. “Expecting architects to also have structural engineering knowledge is a dangerous trend as they are imparted only a very basic level of engineering knowledge at the undergraduate level.” However, Wij emphasises that architects must be made aware of the right planning of regular building geometries in earthquake-prone areas, as per BIS 1893-Part I, to improve the performance of buildings in severe earthquakes, thus saving many lives. Reverse brain drain India has supplied considerable manpower to the construction industry in the Gulf. Considering the host of complex, challenging domestic mega projects on the anvil, strong economic growth, a stable government and rising salaries for talent in India, are these talented people likely to seek employment back home? “In the short run this is highly unlikely because most international A&E firms are flooded with work from the booming Saudi market,” says Kulkarni. “Although India offers a good opportunity, it is still not attractive enough when someone considers salary levels, taxation and value for money, especially in metros.” Wij doesn’t see that happening in the near future as the infrastructure sector in the Gulf is growing at a very rapid pace and Abu Dhabi will soon outgrow Dubai as the next hottest destination. “Besides the construction industry in those countries is very well organised, with a due diligence and design check mechanism in place with the concerned municipalities,” she adds. “The Gulf offers better remuneration and more challenging assignments to engineering and architecture professionals with better quality of design as well as construction. We are still far behind in both.” That said, India has come a long way. Jain points out that “a decade ago there was a huge gap between salaries in India and the Gulf but today this difference has narrowed especially for professionals with more than 15 years’ experience, which has made jobs in India more attractive. So, yes, the availability of engineers with Gulf experience has increased.” Kumar believes political instability in the Gulf and lower economic growth in some African countries could encourage some individuals to migrate to India – but not a mass movement. Background advantage Notwithstanding a shortage of skilled manpower in the construction industry, India is home to the civil engineering back offices of major international consulting firms. Are these likely to help hone talent for local projects too? “No,” responds Wij. “Back offices of Arup, AECOM, WSP, Atkins, etc, are mostly mobilised for large assignments in other countries, thus the term ‘Global Design Centres’.” “Younger engineers earn more overseas than in India, which is why opening design centres in India makes sense to multinational companies,” explains Jain. “Such back offices offer good opportunities to Indian engineers.” Back offices of international engineering firms in India bring foreign investment and lucrative job opportunities, and therefore attract a lot of talent, notes Kulkarni. “However, a downside to this is their engineering teams are generally shielded from project ground realities, local challenges and direct dealing with clients and contractors. Therefore, they tend to have limited exposure to the techno-commercial understanding needed for mega Indian projects.” Consequently, Kulkarni points out that such engineers would find it difficult to grow into senior positions to tackle project challenges and deliveries. Instead, if such offices also deliver local projects, as happens at Buro Happold, they would be better equipped to deliver collaborative projects overseas. In Panch’s view, engineering back offices position India well to capitalise on advancements like geographic information systems (GIS), artificial intelligence (AI) and BIM. “These technologies, coupled with the adoption of paperless workspaces and online collaboration platforms, can facilitate faster decision-making and enhanced project efficiency,” he says. Emerging roles Beyond traditional construction, Kumar suggests that civil engineers can find fulfilling careers in project management, construction management, design and planning, quality assurance or control, structural engineering, infrastructure development, environmental engineering and R&D. “India’s surging infrastructure sector is opening doors to exciting specialisations like urban planning, sustainable development, etc,” he says. “India’s road and rail network expansion projects will require experienced and qualified personnel in design and value engineering, risk management and project management competencies, particularly for large projects,” adds Dr Bajaj. “Also, increasing digitalisation in the realty sector will create demand for talent capable of executing innovative business models and projects with newer roles such as business transformation specialists, technology-driven profiles for digital customer experiences through virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR), 3D view and online walkthroughs, managers for ESG and business analysis, project brand managers, LEED or GRIHA=certified architects for developing sustainable architecture, and legal experts to interpret.” Evidently, for those with the right skills, the opportunities are unlimited. - Charu Bahri CW Recommends Collaboration is required between academia and industry. There should be a finishing school programme for civil, architectural and electrical engineering graduates and final year students to impart employable skills. Lifelong learning among civil engineers will help them stay updated with the latest trends and advancements. Construction academies in every state and skill development centres in every district will skill the workforce numbers that the industry needs. Private players who actively participate in skill development should be incentivised. India has come a long way in terms of challenging engineering and construction infrastructure but it has a long way to go in terms of the huge gap between salaries in India and the Gulf To attract and retain talent, the industry needs to offer competitive compensation and benefits, a positive work culture, upskilling opportunities, project diversity and mentorship programmes. An all-India governing body should be created for practicing structural engineers. Architects must be made aware of the right planning of building geometries in earthquake-prone areas to improve their performance in earthquakes, thus saving many lives. There should be mandatory accreditation to give the discipline its importance and the salary levels that it deserves, vis-à-vis the work involved.

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