That’s because the building industry has, since the last recession, relied heavily on migrant workers. That downturn meant when construction projects were curtailed and domestic workers left the industry, foreign-born labour was easily accessible once business picked up again, because of the skills shortages that existed in the UK-born workforce. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that EU nationals now comprise a crucial part of the construction workforce, accounting for around 8 per cent of all construction workers in the UK, 28 per cent in London.
This migrant labour source has also helped the industry counter the shortfall of apprentices. According to the Construction Industry Training Board, the industry needs to fill some 168,500 new jobs over the next five years, and grow much more of its own domestic workforce, given the limits on future access to migrant workers after Brexit. But the latest government figures show the number of people starting an apprenticeship in England (overall, not just in construction) fell to 125,800 between August and October last year, down 4.7% from 132,000 in the same quarter a year earlier.
At the same time, the sector is being squeezed at the other end. ONS figures show that in 2011, one in every five UK-born construction workers was aged over 55 – meaning that by 2021, those people will nearly have reached retirement age, about the same time that any limits on migrant workers will kick in. Restricting access to all-important migrant labour could sound the death-knell for many construction companies.
The government also has little understanding of what constitutes a skilled worker in the construction sector. Immigrants recruited into the industry from abroad today are highly-skilled tradesmen and women far removed from the Brexiteer’s stereotype. On the upside, the government is proposing that the shortage occupation list – the official list of occupations for which there are not enough resident workers to fill vacancies – will now include carpenters and plasterers. Bewilderingly, however, the list will still not include many of the other trades that are crucial for fulfilling a building project, such as bricklayers, plumbers and electricians.
Moreover, there’s a bigger issue here to which the government seems blind. Boris Johnson’s tub-thumping announcements on HS2 and home-building were designed to “cement the red wall”, but this frenzy of promised infrastructure will require a significant infrastructure recruitment drive – where are the workers going to come from?
The industry is already fearful of skills shortages. In a survey of more than 400 housebuilders carried out by McBains last year, fewer than half of respondents (48%) thought that the government’s housebuilding target was achievable. Of those who didn’t, the second most popular reason was that there was not enough skilled labour (cited by 40% of respondents).
Two things need to happen. Firstly, the government needs to add more skilled trades to the Shortage Occupation List. And second, it needs to extend freedom of movement beyond 31 December to allow foreign-born workers to bridge the gap while more homegrown workers are trained. It takes around three to four years to train a bricklayer, so in the short to medium term, the industry needs to be able to continue to access migrant labour in a number of key professions.
The workforce required for major or highly technical projects is seldom met by the local market. This means that the industry needs a highly flexible, in part itinerant, workforce to call on, and it is vital that the sector is able to recruit from abroad. If they can’t, the government’s proposals won’t just harm the construction business – they will wreck Boris Johnson’s dream of an infrastructure boom.
Clive Docwra is Managing Director of McBains, a consulting and design agency specialising in property, infrastructure and construction.