Covid and Brexit have both been contributing factors

The number of migrant workers in UK construction has continued to plummet making it difficult for the industry to cope, according to the Construction Industry Training Board.

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) said the decrease in overseas construction workers had been compounded by the fact the industry is experiencing a sharp rise in the cost of materials, wages and demand for workers.

A CITB report said the number of migrant workers in the UK construction industry fell by 8.3% in 2020, with 25,000 fewer workers in the sector than in 2019 - though this is in the context of the whole industry shrinking by a similar percentage.

Immigration control

Source: 1000 Words /

Many firms are failing to engage with the process that enables migration via the points-based system

It said while the fall was partly caused by departures after Brexit, the pandemic had added to the pressue when covid-19 prompted even more workers to leave the UK and prevented them returning.

James Butcher, head of policy and research at the National Federation of Building, said: “This is a really tough time for construction businesses, our members are regularly reporting that they are struggling to find the workforce they need to meet demand on site and the latest vacancy rate statistics indicate the situation is acute.

“The report findings confirm what many in the industry feared – a significant and sudden drop in the number of migrant workers in the construction workforce which, coupled with the lower apprenticeship starts and difficulties securing FE conversions, mean the short-term pressures are significant and there is no easy way out.”

The migration report said that in last three years the number of migrant workers has fallen 15%, from over 326,000 to just 280,000, the equivalent of one in every seven migrant workers leaving the sector.

In London where there is the highest concentration of overseas workers in the UK –  half of the capital’s construction workforce – numbers dropped to 125,000 in 2020 from 145,000 the previous year.

The research found that many employers are simply not engaging with the points-based immigration system licence scheme to enable them to hire non-UK born workers, particularly SMEs.

In addition, several large and medium sized employers were concerned that some skilled trades were not accessible through the skilled worker visa including dryliners, asbestos workers and insulators.

One construction employer in the south-east of England told researchers: “The impact will be that I can’t take on as many jobs and I’ve got to let my clients down. I’ve already turned down three jobs this week, and we never turn away work…I think that’s going to be the reality going forward.”

Alasdair Reisner, chief executive of CECA, added that the likely outcome of the decreases would be that those areas that have historically had higher levels of migrant labour, and generally higher salaries, such as London and the South-east, will now pull resource from the rest of the country, exacerbating skills difficulties nationwide.