Let’s think differently to close the development skills gap

Paul Gerrard, Director of ForLiving, encourages the housing sector to think differently about recruiting and retaining talent in development teams.

I’m sure lots of my peers would agree that working in development in the housing sector is one of the most vibrant, meaningful and motivating career paths you can pursue. At ForLiving we offer high-quality homes for sale, shared ownership and private rent and all profits are reinvested back into communities and building affordable homes through our sister company ForHousing. We’re proud to help make a positive impact.

Let’s be clear, there is a significant skills gap in our sector that urgently needs addressing. Historical underfunding of new housing and senior people leaving the profession has left a skills vacuum. We don’t have enough people with the experience of seeing large-scale developments from concept to handover.

So, why are we struggling with our talent pipeline? And how can we recruit and retain the development stars of the future that will enable is to build the homes we need?

Thinking outside the traditional structures and pathways must be part of the solution. And at ForLiving, we are proud to see this beginning to work with talented young people stepping into and thriving in their new careers.


Telling our development story
Part of the challenge is a communications issue. How can the next generation take their first career step if they don’t even know our jobs exist. There is no clear career path for people to join our industry. We must work with our partners in government, education and elsewhere to create one. That’s why we have been strengthening our links with colleges and universities in Liverpool and Salford. Development is such a broad area with roles to suit people with a wide array of skills and interests.

We found that careers departments haven’t been talking to students about roles in our teams, because they simply didn’t know about them. Despite the fact they have talented people studying geography, construction management, politics, business and more, who could all thrive in the sector. We need to be spreading the word!


Breaking down barriers
As employers, we need to be mindful about creating unnecessary barriers to opportunities. Are we being too prescriptive when it comes to essential recruitment criteria? And are we unintentionally excluding talented people?

We need to be thinking about how to not just attract talent, but to retain it too. This isn’t just about salaries and perks either, although these are important. It’s also about inclusive working practices which work for everyone, whether you are a parent, live with a chronic illness or aren’t degree educated.

There is stiff competition out there and it’s a strong market for candidates. For instance, with the rise of remote and flexible working, there are more opportunities for people beyond the area where they live.

By thinking outside the box at ForLiving, we are not only improving our talent pipeline but we are seeing people thrive in our development teams who might not have applied previously or even known the opportunities were there for them. We knew we already had passionate, enthusiastic people in the organisation and through supporting them with mentorship and training opportunities we now have the pleasure of watching them become future leaders.

We have also increased our internal and external recruitment at a junior level. Potential development professionals of the future can be trained up in essential skills. Realistically, people don’t need certain exam grades or qualifications, just a great attitude and willingness to learn.


Recruit from within
My colleague Stacey was initially a Customer Service Advisor at ForHousing and had been part of the organisation since 2015. She had some excellent transferable skills including her experience of architecture and design having worked for estate agents, her role as Safeguarding Champion and her detailed frontline housing knowledge. Recognising her potential, we approached her directly about becoming a Trainee Development Officer in 2018.

Stacey said: “I fell pregnant quite soon after starting my new role and returned from maternity leave in 2020. I was worried that this would affect my career development but the company has been incredibly supportive. I’d say it’s genuinely inclusive.

“I’ve been given lots of opportunities to learn on the job, improve my knowledge and develop my managerial and leadership skills. I’ve had great mentorship and support and I feel incredibly valued for what I bring to ForLiving. I’m proud of how far I’ve come, the work I’ve put in and my future career progression. I hope I’m an example to other women too as we still need much better equity in the construction sector.”

ForLiving will also be funding some colleagues to undertake the bric by bric training programme, an interactive scheme aimed at people in their first development role. It will take students through every stage and aspect of the role including site identification and feasibility, contracts, completions and leadership skills. An ideal springboard for the development professionals of the future. I would love to see more courses and qualifications created to nurture new talent and help address our development skills gap.

We are reaping the benefits of creating opportunities and investing in people who have the potential to become development leaders of the future. We’re proud to be supporting individuals like Stacey to thrive in their careers where previously they may have felt like these kind of work opportunities were not open to them.

And we’d love to see others across the sector follow suit — changing up their recruitment and training practices to open up opportunities, close the skills gap and retain talent so we can build more high-quality developments and address the housing crisis.

If we do not tackle the skills gap now, we simply won’t be able to meet the challenge of building the affordable homes that are so greatly needed up and down the country.