Can the UK develop the skills construction needs?
In the lead up to Brexit and in the wake of sweeping immigration changes, the construction industry warned that losing access to EU and other foreign workers could place it at a disadvantage. Already in 2018, predictions were that there weren’t sufficient skills to replace those senior executives who would be up for retirement in five to ten years’ time.
In response, industry bodies pledged to invest in training and development with the aim of injecting more than 40 000 skilled British workers into the construction industry by 2025. But concerns are that it won’t be enough, especially if construction continues to lose EU expertise. Government has tried to dismiss these concerns saying that senior professionals are quite likely to qualify for work visas under the new points system. However, this will not be the case for trades people and labourers that make up a large percentage of the workforce on construction sites.
How can construction navigate these skills challenges?
Some main contractors sought to address the issue by launching apprenticeships and investing in industry related training. Industry skills development organizations leant their support. However, the pandemic put a halt to many of these initiatives and tightened the purse strings.
Other companies are investing heavily in new technologies and prioritising solutions that could help them reduce their reliance on a labour force and at the same time help them to streamline operations and become more efficient.
Increasingly industry voices are calling for revisions to the new points based immigration plan. A primary argument is that construction is unique from other sectors and doesn’t require, for example, the same level of language proficiency as many workers are not client facing. If the industry is to take centre stage as part of the UK Government’s economic recovery plan, it needs less red tape not more.
Current reality check
Given that the government’s current priority is rolling out vaccines and keeping the economy going, changing immigration policies is unlikely to make it to the top of the agenda for some time. While hiring slowed in 2020 as a result of COVID and subsequent lockdowns, of all the sectors, construction was one of the least affected. This level of resilience highlights that the industry could still face a skills shortage in the not too distant future if nothing changes. Especially as new major infrastructure construction projects start to gain momentum.