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Looking beyond the obvious to fix labour shortages

Our latest blog from Oneserve Chief Executive Christopher Proctor.

The obvious solution to a problem isn’t always the best one. Let’s take the war in Ukraine, which has impacted global oil and gas supplies. Finding new fossil fuel supplies might be the obvious solution – to replace like with like. But is it the most sustainable option? And does it represent a long-term fix? Instead, might developing new, zero carbon, sources of energy be a better solution? 

Right now, the social housing sector faces a shortage of its own – and one which is very likely to worsen in the coming years. And while the solutions seem obvious – these won’t necessarily fix the problem. 

Put simply: we face a shortfall in staff in the repairs, maintenance and construction trades: the people who fix existing homes and build new ones. Many, although not all, of these employees are male and over 50. And a lot of them will be retiring in the next few years. This disappearance of older and skilled workers from the talent pool is about to become acute for social housing providers. 

Prior to the pandemic, the Learning and Work Institute conducted research on behalf of the Local Government Association. It predicted a total shortfall of 2.5 million ‘highly skilled’ people by 2030. Meanwhile, Capital Economics says the housing and construction sectors need 1.25m new entrants by 2030 just “to deliver against existing requirements”.

The short to medium term picture may be complicated by what happens in the housing market. Rising interest rates are expected to lead to an imminent slowdown in the construction of new homes, so we may see some trades people move over from building firms to repair and maintenance roles. While this may benefit social housing providers in the short-term it won’t be a long-term fix. 

Just focusing on recruitment won’t be enough either. In 2019-20 just 22,000 new apprenticeships embarked on their learning and skills journey – and of those only 43% completed their training. And even if we did hit the numbers, new entrants will take decades to build up the required experience.

So, if the obvious solution isn’t enough – what less obvious solutions might be available to social housing landlords? Our starting point must be the underlying issues of efficiency and technology, in my view.

I wrote in my last blog about how cloud-based field management software is helping providers to do more with less. Typically, a landlord can do 25% more jobs in a day, from the same amount of operatives, if they switch to one of our systems from an old legacy system. So there’s one way which technology is already helping us offset some of the labour challenges we face. 

Our technology is bespoke to each landlord – but wherever it is deployed it delivers greater efficiency and ultimately a better service for customers who are more likely to see their repair job “fixed first time”. 

In an environment based on fewer and less experienced operatives we really will have to do more with less. But a system like Oneserve means that is possible. You can have a workforce which is more mobile, more efficient, more visible and more empowered.

In other areas, technology also has the potential to help offset some of the labour shortages coming down the line. Many of the providers we work with tell us that “no entrance” is one of the biggest problems they face, where an operative turns up to carry out a check or a repair and can’t get access. Typically, this costs between £100 – £200 per visit.

Right now, there are technological solutions which can leverage Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) to automate any number of problems. AI, for example, can use IoT technology to monitor the status of lights in a shared area of a building. No one needs to physically go out and check these lights as the system automatically detects a problem; generates a job and instructs an operative in what needs doing. So, no more “no entrances”. Jobs which would have required multiple visits will in future require only one.  Meanwhile, better data analysis will enable us to carry out more “predictive fixes” – meaning we can head off faults before they arise. And auto scheduling will give us an improved ability to highlight potential future resourcing issues.

Let’s be realistic – technology won’t fix everything. And we are a long way off an army of robots replacing all our field service operatives. We will of course need more skilled people in the years ahead – and investment in apprenticeships will form a key part of this. But the best solution to this problem doesn’t necessarily involve replacing like with like. In my view, if we are to find practical solutions to this pressing problem we have to think beyond the obvious. 

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