Constructionnews.co.uk, as part of their week long industry skills challenge, have discovered how fresh data and political investigations are shedding more and more light on the impact Brexit is having and will have on workforces.
Brexit negotiations have moved forward yet at the same time seem to have produced little real progress.
Despite Theresa May’s ‘deal’ announced in December last year, uncertainty still hangs in the air for the UK’s 3.2m EU nationals.
Under the current agreement, EU citizens who have been in the UK for five years continuously will be able to apply for ‘settled status’. The online system is being developed from scratch, but the government promises it will be “user-friendly” and draw on existing data to “minimise the burden on applicants to provide evidence”.
The EU workforce’s contribution to the UK construction sector cannot be underestimated – particularly in London. As the Construction Industry Council pointed out in its evidence to the MAC: “Nearly 200,000 people working in construction are from the EU, which is the equivalent workforce for building 16 Crossrails.”
Only one more Crossrail is planned, for now, but that’s part of a £500bn pipeline of major infrastructure projects – including HS2, Hinkley and Heathrow. In addition, housebuilding is expected to ramp up as the government aims to tackle the UK’s shortage of homes.
In the scaffolding sector alone, thousands of employees will be needed for major nuclear power stations at Hinkley and Wylfa, leaving workers in short supply up and down the country.
Infrastructure plans are concentrated on the South-east, where the EU labour issue could become particularly acute. According to the MAC, 26.8 per cent of London’s construction workforce is from the EU.
Two years on from the EU referendum, how worried should the industry be about a ‘Brexodus’ and what are the current trends around labour?
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of EU nationals working in the UK has fallen 28,000 in a year to 2.29m.
ONS data published in February revealed that the number of Eastern European nationals working in the UK last year slid by 5 per cent.
Meanwhile its latest employment survey, published in May, showed that in Q1 2018, 80 per cent of main contractors were reporting difficulties with recruiting bricklayers, 76 per cent were having trouble finding carpenters and 56 per cent were struggling to find plasterers.
These issues can partly be attributed to the long-running skills crisis in construction. But they also emphasise the need to address the status of EU nationals.
Anecdotally, Mr Radley says the CITB is hearing that the number of EU workers in construction is remaining generally stable, but there is some concern about the quality of workers arriving.
“A lot of workers here currently are from Poland and are generally regarded as being technically some of the best – multi-skilled and with good language skills,” he says. “But it may be that immigrants from some other countries don’t score as highly on those fronts.”
As contractors work out how to fill the gaps, others are still concerned about how government views the construction industry in the context of Brexit. A leaked document last year revealed that construction was rated as a ‘low priority’ by government.
However, Liberal Democrat peer and former coalition government minister Lord Stunell believes this is the wrong approach.
“Everything about growth in the economy is dependent on construction, but the government seems completely transfixed with getting its immigration figures down,” he says. “The industry needs to expand its workforce by 30 per cent to get these big infrastructure projects done, but could lose 10 per cent of its workforce.”
It is not just the lack of EU workers that is weighing on the minds of construction bosses. The industry’s ageing workforce – with 30 per cent of workers over 50 – remains a deep-seated concern. The added sting in the tail is that there is a higher proportion of young migrant workers compared with their UK counterparts.
Brexit and an ageing workforce combined could prove a big stumbling block in the future, however figures generally are encouraging in terms of output at the moment, and that is something that can be built upon. Brexit was always going to bring uncertainty, but being prepared and working towards solutions now means that once change comes the construction industry as a whole will be ready.
Source: Construction News