Allowing overseas project managers and QSs to stay in the UK would be a surefire way of bridging Britain’s talent Gap

The news is full of discrimination at the moment. The Catholic Church feel they should be treated in a special way and be given an opt-out of the anti-discrimination bill. Even contestants in the Big Brother house were the subject of parliamentary questions regarding their discrimation by fellow housemates.

I cannot claim that our profession captures the high profile ponderings of Polly Toynbee or others who take up causes that prick the consciences of the liberal glitterati. However there is an issue that is causing increasing consternation in those of us who are trying to run businesses. That is the ongoing debate by HM Government in deciding who is deemed to be part of “valued” or “high priority” professions and which are not. Who is allowed to stay in the country for longer than a statutory two-year period and who has to leave. This borders discrimation and is both foolish and unhelpful to UK plc.

You may wonder why the issue of workplace immigration is occupying my mind at this time and why would I wish to enter what is a highly subjective debate. Well, it is my view that as an industry we seem to be moving into uncharted waters at the moment. I attend functions and the talk is not of tender prices, the latest PFI worries or even future workload. The talk is of the “talent gap”. The gap between the amount of work available and the qualified professionals that are ready and available and able to work within our industry.

The issue has become so prescient that recently I was asked to join six or seven fellow QS consultancies and write a lobbying missive to the Department of Work and Pensions about the shortage of qualified people in the UK. To put this initiative into perspective to gain a united front amongst consultancies is akin to persuading Jeremy Clarkson to travel by bicycle.

However we all agreed to write the letter because it is increasingly difficult to recruit qualified, skilled people in the UK with a proven track record. We have an Olympics to build, we have new prisons, schools and hospitals to Project Manage and an order book that is thankfully full. This is great news, this is not a cause for complaint of any kind. But the issue to which HM Government is slow to respond is the challenge of helping us identify and recruit the people that we need to do the job.

The irritation is that there are resources available outside the UK in the old commonwealth countries like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, but we as a firm have to demonstrate how and where we have exhausted our search for home nationals to fill the vacancies before we can hire them and then they can only stay for 24 months.

We know that due to recession many university courses closed at the beginning of the 1990’s, hence places on degrees at that time were drastically reduced as there were few jobs for graduates available. The courses became depleted and therefore logically it follows that few trained professionals came through. Now they are all in work as there is virtually full employment. We would like to, in the short term, see a resolution to the issue by being able to recruit some skilled people from outside the UK until we can promote the industry sufficiently positively for more people to want to join it and therefore boost the numbers of people joining the course at university.

Those we identify have a cultural fit, the appropriate language skills as well as a professional qualification which is both appropriate and needed. You cannot manage something if you cannot measure it and we have a shortage of skilled quantity surveyors and project managers at a time when the workload is growing rather than diminishing. These people have a desire to work in the UK, in spite of our strange weather pattern, and it is pure beauracracy that is preventing them. A maximum two-year visa permit is simply not long enough to encourage these potential recruits to come to the UK.

The current shortfall is resulting in a recruitment campaign that would appear to have more in common with the pursuit of ‘stalking’ than any sort of HR strategy. Tactics used by those desperate for staff are bordering on harassment by some desperate souls in our industry. We have had colleagues called literally six or seven times in a two-day period with offers of signing on fees and golden handcuffs that would make David Beckham drool. There is nothing wrong with healthy competition, it is the lifeblood of our sector but those making the ‘poaching’ approaches have turned out to be personnel managers of competitors rather than voracious headhunters. If this continues one can imagine a “talent war” breaking out that will be to the advantage of very few in the long term.

For government and namely the Dept of Work and Pensions the answer is easy. Simply recognise quantity surveying and project management as a core professional necessity needed by UK plc. Give those applying for long-term visa status an opportunity to demonstrate professional competency, their employer the chance to guarantee long-term employment and as a safeguard ensure that some form of liability falls upon companies wishing to employee non-residents to ensure that they monitor the work status of the employee.

This is not a form of discrimation that will rock the state or one that is going to cause the unskilled workforce of former soviet republics to flock to their nearest UK consulate to demand QS or PM status.

It is just a sensible response to a growing need from our industry. It is a fact of life that the laws of supply and demand often determine the price for a project. The shorter the supply of talent, the greater the cost to recruit and retain that talent.

At some point the market will need to bear the cost of that shortfall and this will have a knock-on effect on the cost of projects, which in it self will feed into inflation.

Hence whilst discrimination is rightly viewed as an inappropriate and negative force

In the case of our own sector it is something that the government should consider as soon as possible.