Failing to address the skills shortage will lead to a construction crisis post-Brexit

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Border, immigration and citizenship after the UK Leaves the EU

Last week the above document was leaked from the Home Office. It focuses on one of the most fundamental and emotive issues that surrounds the UK’s exit from the European Union: free movement of labour.

While it is in draft form, the document highlights current thinking and demonstrates the direction that immigration policy is likely to take. Reading it will not provide comfort to the built environment sector; a sector which is at risk of losing 180,000 migrant workers and, according to a report produced this month by our National Minor Works framework partner, Kier (Averting a £90bn GDP crisis), is already facing the impending retirement of a third of its workforce. Amongst other things, the leaked document sets out plans for:

  • Ending free movement in its current form
  • Permits for most workers, which will only last for up to two years
  • The introduction of a minimum income threshold

These three key points from the document, if implemented, will have a significant impact on the flow of labour required to support the delivery of much needed new homes and infrastructure projects. Earlier this year SCAPE carried out an analysis of Government data that laid bare the impact of Brexit on the construction industry. Our research found that the UK leaving the European Union could cost the sector as much as £570 million, through a combination of a skills drought and the rising cost of importing materials.

The Home Office report emphasises the need for Government to outline clear procedures to ensure that come 2019, the UK’s construction industry - which could face the loss of 8% of its workforce - does not collapse.

The worsening skill shortage

Brexit is not the only issue facing the sector as it continues to struggle to recruit. The employment opportunities within the construction industry are commonly misunderstood by careers advisers, parents and school-leavers as highlighted in recent research from both Kier and housebuilder Redrow (Overcoming aversion to apprenticeships). This is especially the case when it comes to attracting women to the industry. Research by Keepmoat Regeneration found that women, who only account for 11% of the construction industry, hold common misconceptions about the range of opportunities available from the boardroom to the building site.

Attracting and retaining talent will be key to combating the issues Brexit will bring and it is essential that the task of challenging perceptions begins immediately. We are losing out on half the talent pool when the majority of women won’t even consider a career in the construction industry. The industry needs to work together to create a positive image of the built environment that effectively showcases to both men and women the broad array of job opportunities across the sector that are available now. Managing Director for SCAPE Procure, Victoria Brambini, is an active advocate of women in construction. Her blog sets out how women could be the key to overhauling the current skill shortage in the industry.

Increasing awareness and attraction

Proactive steps also need to be taken to overhaul construction training and education within the UK, and we need to be confident that we have people with the right skill sets to continue delivering quality projects.

This is not only about training new recruits, but upskilling the current workforce. The announcement of T-levels in the spring budget was an important step in recognising the importance of vocational courses to the UK economy and simplifying routes to employment. The recent delay to the roll out of the qualification to September 2020 however, is disappointing and the sort of delay the Government should be avoiding.

This also needs to be coupled with our education system being better equipped to recommend careers in the sector and provide a much improved emphasis on the opportunities and rewards available within construction.

It is time to face facts. The UK needs to keep building. It is essential for the economy and there is a growing need that remains unmet across a variety of sectors.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and half a million more by the end of 2022. There are a number of large scale infrastructure projects in the pipeline including High Speed 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the long-awaited Heathrow Airport expansion. We also continue to see an education sector with woefully inadequate assets. To continue to attract inward investment, we need better roads, more commercial development, improved and more efficient public services; the list goes on.

With this level of demand, it is evident that Government needs to find a way to retain skilled EU workers and commit to a robust strategy that will attract sustainable levels of talent in the future. This way, we can ensure we avoid a significant deficit in the workforce, which would have disastrous implications for the wider economy.

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Written by:

Mark Robinson

Group Chief Executive