Construction faces the prospect of losing large chunks of its workforce because of Brexit

Sarah Richardson

With bonfires smouldering across the UK’s open spaces this week, it’s perhaps timely that the past few days have finally seen a real focus on construction’s own burning platform: the looming skills shortage that threatens to derail ambitions to ramp up building on national priorities like housing.

For decades, those who have banged the drum for industry reform have repeated the refrain that construction cannot keep relying on unpredictable migrant labour to resource its projects. Now, however, it literally cannot. The government’s determination to trigger the start of the UK’s withdrawal from Europe by next spring, coupled with a prevailing mood from Westminster that control over Britain’s borders should trump the business lobby’s desire to retain freedom of movement of labour, means the industry is staring at the prospect of losing 12% of its available workforce even before some of the jobs now being won see completion. For some sites in London, the figure has been estimated to be as high as 70%.

However, there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind – especially one with a deadline attached. And so it is perhaps unsurprising, but very encouraging nonetheless, to have witnessed a sudden fresh impetus to address both the industry’s much-maligned training regime, and its productivity.

First we had Mark Farmer’s explosive directive to “modernise or die”, delivered with an assessment that 700,000 workers would be needed to fill gaps in the industry over the next five years. This came alongside a list of top-line recommendations including reforming industry training board the CITB, and incentivising off-site building.

Now we have a quick-fire reaction from the government, which has commissioned former Davis Langdon veteran and industry reformer of the first order, Paul Morrell, to assess the future of the CITB and its levy. In addition, we have growing momentum around the government’s plan to use bank lending to stimulate off-site housing construction and deliver a new generation of prefab homes.

Detail of its recently announced £3bn home building fund is set to appear in a housing white paper next month.

Brexit, as someone as politically astute as Morrell will have been well aware when he agreed to head the review of the CITB, provides a reason for the government to throw its weight into working with industry to address problems that have been stuck on the to-do list for years. For the industry’s future, and for the delivery of the UK’s future building needs, this has to be positive – whatever your view on its cause.

Even without the vote to leave the EU, the UK construction sector was facing a need to recruit around 30,000 workers a year, and despite years of similar statistics, and laudable efforts from pockets of the industry, there has been no sign of the kind of step change that would have solved the problem. And whatever reality a tightened migrant labour market brings for the industry – whether it results in a 12% drop in labour, or some less precipitous figure – a solution to the underlying issues that resulted in that dependence in the first place is long overdue; both in training and in recruitment and in the slow take-up of labour-saving construction methods.

But issues that are so deeply ingrained cannot be overcome quickly. In staffing terms, the retirement rate of older workers means the industry not only needs to staff up, it faces a constantly moving target of workers to replace. For the most creative industry sectors in particular – architects, structural engineers – there is not just a numbers issue but also a cultural one: there are already professionals making the case that the exchange of ideas they have with foreign colleagues brought up with a different perspective is a big part of making their practices tick. Meanwhile, even should off-site methods become a favoured route for clients, there will need to be more factories built, new skill sets learnt and an iterative process of design development to arrive at solutions that will stand the test of time. Not just houses, but the homes of the future.

So alongside longer-term reform, there is a clear case for short-term policies that enable the industry to build at anything like the pace that the UK needs to support its population. Migrant workers have been that “stop gap” for decades; to pull the rug without transitional arrangements would leave a gaping hole where the government wants new homes, roads and railways to be.

A steady flow of industries have already begun pleading for “special measures” on labour rules as Britain transitions to Brexit. Construction has a strong case for pushing itself to the front of that queue.

Sarah Richardson, editor