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Shortage of skilled construction labour – A Paradox

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LabourNet is a Bangalore based social enterprise that provides required benefits for workers in the informal sector through a holistic platform. The organization is involved in the skill assessment, skill development and work linkage of construction workers through its 40 livelihood and 90 on-site centres across the country. Gayathri Vasudevan, CEO of LabourNet talking to Buildotech says, “The construction industry, a major contributor to Indian GDP and the second largest employer of Indian work force, suffers from lack of productivity. One of the major factor influencing sector’s efficiency is unskilled or semi-skilled labour.”

How the skill deficiency of workers is impacting productivity of construction projects?

The success of any construction project is largely dependent on the availability of continuous, skilled labour at all levels. Though the sector generates employment opportunities on a large scale but suffers from insufficient skills. The unskilled workers have very little safety orientation, workplace skills, discipline and inability to follow simple instructions with low job loyalty i.e. frequent job shifts and migratory nature. As per the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO), 30 million workers in India are constantly on the move (migrant labour)

“Over the last two decades, the gap between the skills available and the skills required among the construction workforce has widened considerably. There is an urgent requirement to bridge this skill gap. Given the governments large-scale investment in infrastructure projects & projection for real estate during the 11th plan period, the demand for construction is expected to grow by at least 8-9%. The industry will therefore, require the full range of skilled employees from professionals like civil, mechanical, electrical engineers and architects to foremen, charge hands, supervisors and skilled construction workers. According to the World Bank report, India’s construction industry is expected to face a labour shortage of 18-28% if the country grows at a medium rate and a shortage of nearly 55-60% if it sees high growth.”

– Gayathri Vasudevan
CEO LabourNet

Shortage of skilled workers hinders the progress of work leading to delay in meeting deadlines i.e. timely output. There is a vast difference between the business need and the skill set possessed by the workers in the Industry presently. Most of the gaps in the skill sets are in areas of core knowledge and skill required to undertake relevant job role as part of a construction project. The biggest challenge faced by Industry today is, that most talent available for key construction activities like masonry, carpentry, brick work etc. is unskilled or has crude skills with limited job relevant knowledge.

The problems get compounded at the supervisory levels. Most organizations hire supervisors with diploma in civil engineering or a degree in civil engineering. These graduates are hired from the various IT and Polytechnics. While, the students have a reasonable level of theoretical knowledge, they have limited practical knowledge. The combination of ill-equipped, less skilled workers with an overlay of poor supervisory talent results in 20-30% wastage and repeat work as well as delays in completing projects. This naturally has a great impact on productivity of the sites.

Considering the fact that construction sector in India is the second largest economic activity after agriculture, a separate ministry would definitely be a good option. However, in the interim there is an urgent need for the government to have more flexible legislations as well as incentives to ensure that skilled manpower is deployed. This will lead to growth in the sector.

Reasons for the skilled labour problems faced by the industry

Although construction industry generates millions of jobs, it is not the preferred employment destination for youth as the industry is perceived to have difficult working conditions, low pay and lack of job security. Add to this, the complication that contractors and builders do not employ workers directly but through middle men whose interest in workers is transitory and not long term.

It is also widely believed that the rural development initiatives of the government such as the MGNREGA and Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission have further impacted the availability of skilled labour. There is anecdotal evidence that these initiatives have created employment opportunities for labourers in their local areas, minimizing the need for them to travel to the project sites in search of livelihood.

Is there an awareness among builders on the importance of skilling?

Realty developers are getting increasingly aware of the advantage of skilling workers. They have started to realize that a little investment in skill development and education of its workers will enable them to reap long term benefits in terms of productivity and profitability.

Also, skilled manpower will result in better quality of work and minimize re-work which will result in timely completion of projects. This will also have a ripple effect, that is there will be less cost overrun and predictability. Thus, skill development will directly impact the productivity of the industry. With skilled workers, the industry can expect timely completion of its projects, fewer accidents, better employer- employee relations and overall profitability.

“Finding workers who are skilled and completely equipped is very difficult in the construction industry as there is tremendous shortage of skilled manpower. We faced similar challenges on our worksite. LabourNet approached us with the concept of conducting On-site training for our workforce. The concept was intriguing, so pilot batches for one month was introduced. Courses like Shuttering Carpentry, Bar Bending, and Masonry were conducted on the site. After the theory sessions, the workers were given a detailed practical demo and were also observed, guided and corrected. We could actually see the impact of the training, as the number of accidents and work related errors made by the workers on the job reduced.“

– K V Sujith Kumar
General Manager – Engineering
Tata Housing Development Company Ltd

Timely project completion will not only impact construction firm’s bottom line positively, but trickle down to other aspects such as timely payment of vendors and contractors. This in turn will mean timely & predictable payment cycles for workers. In the long run, this will improve image of the construction industry and attract talent.

Developers can play a very crucial role in this regard. Firstly, they can start sourcing workers from registered and reputed contractors and secondly, in co-ordination with these contractors focus on skilling the workers on new skills, up gradation of skills and work place health and safety.

LabourNet has accomplished several skilling initiatives for the construction companies. We set up onsite centers at the construction sites as temporary training centers with the support of corporate/developers and builders. The workers here are provided with skill training, to ensure that neither work suffers nor do worker lose wages. Till today, LabourNet has trained 1,00,000 workers in the unorganized sector and nearly 30% of them are from construction industry.

Role of system/equipment providers

Plant and machinery at sites is complex and require training to operate and maintain. Untrained and un-certified manpower can cause grievous harm to not only the operator but also to workers in the site and sometimes innocent bystanders. Equipment providers are increasingly exploring ways in which they can provide trained manpower to operate their machinery. Cost effective means of training and certification of machine operators is the need of the hour.

Furthermore, the past two decades have seen a sea change in the type of material used and techniques adopted. Type of construction has also changed consisting of more high rise buildings, sophisticated interiors, green and lean buildings. There is thus a requirement for continuous skill up gradation and knowledge transfer to workers.

Brief on the workers safety at construction site

Construction workers are exposed to several vulnerabilities at the construction site, but unfortunately have very little or no knowledge on workplace health and safety. Most of the informal workers in the construction industry come from rural background and are not conversant about the criticality of safe work practices. Unsafe practices cause accidents which in turn have made the sector infamous amongst the workers

Today, most of the construction companies have started to realize the need to retain workers and have taken steps to ensure adoption of safe working practices and standards at the workplace. Behaviour based safety and technical trainings of LabourNet have been acknowledged by the construction companies and they have witnessed a considerable decrease in the work place accidents post these trainings

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