For young UK construction professionals looking with gloom at this country’s embattled industry, overseas work has long seemed a tempting prospect. But as work here picks up, can the UK retain and even regain its skilled staff? Mike Brown reports


For five long years the advice to ambitious young construction staff looking for their next big move has been: leave the UK. But while there’s no doubt the economic crisis left businesses cutting staff and spending cautiously, optimism is now rising in the UK construction industry. Turner & Townsend’s International Construction Cost Survey 2013 report, published earlier this month, predicts 2014 will be the best year for construction since the financial crisis started. Construction output figures - despite the odd dip - are finally largely on the up. But after years of brain drain out of the UK, is this reversal in fortunes enough to bring aspiring construction professionals back to these shores?

Last year’s International Salary Survey, published in Building in June, highlighted Canada, Hong Kong and New Zealand as countries where demand for migrant construction professionals was set to grow.

In other cases, specific projects could prove a draw. For example, Ireland’s N52 bypass and Dublin airport runway created a particular demand for civil engineers, while Australia was calling out for commercial sector site managers to help with its National Broadband Network.

And in 2014 there are already signs that British workers are still being sought after internationally, and plenty of reasons to believe that they might be tempted to look overseas for work. Germany’s construction industry, which remains Europe’s largest, is expected to keep growing and achieve an output worth €289bn (£238bn) by 2016.

Paul Arthur, managing director of emigration agency The Emigration Group, has predicted a construction boom in New Zealand that could cause swaths of British workers to emigrate and fill a skills gap. Meanwhile Andrew Wolstenholme, chief executive of Crossrail, has warned that thousands of tunnelling experts and civil engineers could leave the country if Crossrail finishes and there are no similar projects to move on to.

But now at least there are reasons for workers to stay as well. While concerns remain of losing skills overseas after Crossrail is finished, other grand designs like High Speed 2 and a second Crossrail are sure to create opportunities for skilled workers. Infrastructure output alone is expected to rise to a record high of £16.4bn by 2016, according to Experian’s construction forecast. The RICS predicts a 30,000 rise in housing starts this year over the previous year.

Does this all tip the balance in favour of UK workers staying at home? Beyond the economic facts and figures, how else can we entice British workers to take up jobs in the British construction industry?

We asked three professionals for their opinion on the trends, and how workers may be attracted back to the UK.

ann bentley

Ann Bentley, chairman, RLB UK

To attract people back, we need to consider why they went in the first place and what has changed. Looking at staff at RLB who have transferred overseas in the last five to six years, there are four primary reasons: money; more interesting work; the opportunity to see the world; and professional experience and career progression. For many people the balance tipped towards working abroad because of redundancy or job insecurity in the UK. Once abroad, staff are more likely to take further overseas positions, but many do ultimately return to the UK. The reasons that they generally cite include boredom with the work, dislike of the lifestyle or country, children’s education, aging parents, spouse’s career prospects and homesickness.

So what is striking is that it is advancement that takes people overseas, but family and familiarity that often brings them home. Therefore to speed up a return to the UK we have to ensure that ambitious people get the opportunity to work on a variety of projects and are provided with training and experience that really stretches them - we find that at this stage in their careers people are particularly keen to study masters degrees or MBAs, and company support can be a real attraction. Coupled to that we have to ensure that our working environments allow a realistic work-life balance.

The irony is, that although there is a shortage of experienced staff in the UK, we are continuing to see a massive growth in overseas projects, and so attracting staff back to the UK may simply be robbing Peter to pay Paul. The long-term answer has to be to attract more able, ambitious people into the construction professions, both in the UK and overseas.

duncan bullimore

Duncan Bullimore, director, Hays Construction

We have yet to see a noticeable change in the number of construction professionals returning from abroad, but as the year progresses and the UK’s economic recovery takes hold this may well happen.

The UK has the high profile, large investment projects that always attract interest from workers who want the big project names for their CVs. 

Falling unemployment and the IMF’s improved growth forecast paint a positive picture for the economy, boosting employers’ confidence to recruit, and salaries are likely to increase this year as competition for staff increases.

While there will always be international movement of construction workers, the increase in job opportunities and salaries at home could see fewer UK construction workers seeking opportunities elsewhere.

peter jacobs

Peter Jacobs, managing director, London, Morgan Sindall

The UK economy is growing again and it is essential that the construction industry is able to respond to the skills requirements particularly in relation to management skills.

People will return to the UK industry more readily if they feel they will be more highly valued at home than abroad. This must be more than just about higher salaries.

The industry is changing rapidly requiring new skills in things such as BIM and off-site construction. The perception of the long, stressful hours for construction professionals must change to a view that people are recognised and rewarded for their skills, talent and experience rather than ability to work long hours in less than ideal conditions. Recognition of the benefits of professional qualification plays a major role in this change in culture.

We need to show a structured career structure linked to academic and professional qualification and the new CIOB designation of Chartered Construction Manager can play an important part in this cultural change.