Employers turn to migrants because there are not enough skilled job applicants in the UK, according to new research

One in three UK construction companies employs migrant workers and half of these fear the potential impact of an immigration cap, new research shows.

Employers turn to migrants because there are not enough skilled job applicants in the UK, according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) report. Some employers (22%) also said migrant workers have a better work ethic. But only 1% specifically look to recruit migrants.

The study examined the likely impact of Brexit on construction’s workforce, with two in five employment agencies saying they expect staff shortages after Britain leaves the EU. However 75% of migrant workers expect to be in UK construction in a year’s time, and more than half expect to work here until retirement.

The research showed that the largest number of migrant workers are general labourers (22%), although there is a wide spread across many skilled areas such as architects (15%), carpenters/joiners (13%), plasterers (13%), bricklayers (11%) and managers (9%).

One in eight construction workers was born outside the UK, and one in 15 – or 140,000 overall – come from the EU. The majority come from Poland (39%) and Romania (26%), and they are largely London-based.

One quarter of employers surveyed reported at least one impact of Brexit on their company to date, with the most common being increased costs (12%), followed by project delays due to uncertainty and a lack of client investment.

London-based construction firms were more likely to report impacts because of Brexit, notably a lack of client investment (23%), project delays (19%) and staff shortages (13%).

The research was carried out by the CITB, research agency IFF and the Institute of Employment Research at Warwick University, and was based on over 600 interviews with construction firms, employment agencies and migrant workers.

Professor Anne Green, from Warwick University’s Institute of Employment Research, said: “The UK construction sector relies on migrant labour alongside UK workers to meet demand. This is especially the case in London.

“Migrant labour plays a key role in offering flexibility for the sector to respond in a timely fashion to project requirements. This means that the future immigration policy matters, as does training of UK workers.”

Steve Radley, director of policy at CITB, said: “Our detailed look at migration labour in construction illustrates how it gives employers the flexibility to respond rapidly to a range of skill needs. It shows that the construction workforce is still largely home-grown but migrant workers play a critical role, particularly in major projects and in London. 

“While most firms are not reporting an impact from Brexit, those who employ migrants are concerned about the future availability of EU workers. But with over three quarters of construction workers expecting to stay in the next 12 months, we have breathing space to adapt to any changes in migration policy.

“While construction employers work with government on its future approach, we will support them to find new and better ways to attract, train and retain the workforce they need.”