05/02/2019

Falling short on skills

The time has come for the government to explicitly clarify their position on our access to crucial EU labour after Brexit.

The outlook for post-Brexit Britain continues to look decidedly murky. Theresa May has been authorised to return to Brussels to re-table discussions on the Irish backstop, but the EU has been clear that this point is non-negotiable.

Politicians cannot agree whether to postpone Brexit, but can agree that they don’t want to crash out in March – a sentiment that businesses across the UK can also agree with.

Uncertainty continues to be the underlying theme and this is having a profound impact on the construction industry and its workforce. Sajid Javid’s long-awaited Immigration White Paper was unveiled at the end of 2018, and it was hugely disappointing to see that the government plans to replace free movement with a skills-based immigration system. We are already losing crucial labour, since the referendum there has been a 14.9% drop in the number of workers in the UK from the eight Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004[1].

This is concerning, but unsurprising, as the UK is hardly portraying itself as open to the rest of the world. While government policy is pushing people away, EU countries are tempting their own talent back. At this years’ World Economic Forum in Davos, Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, confirmed that Polish workers are returning, attracted to the strong economic growth and low levels of unemployment the country is currently experiencing.

When your own country, where your family are likely still living, is showing a GDP growth rate 3 percentage points above the UK, the decision to return is easy. Meanwhile, government decisions to classify a whole swathe of construction jobs as low-skilled, based on arbitrary salary bands, will restrict the ability of those who would like to remain. Parliament was due to debate the Immigration White Paper in January, but ongoing discussions about Brexit have seemingly kicked this into the long grass. A delay that the industry cannot afford.

Latest statistics from the ONS show that the construction industry was feeling slightly more optimistic towards the end of last year.

Although the UK may have a pipeline of projects and the industry has grown in recent months, all the business optimism in the world won’t make a difference if we don’t have the manpower to deliver new homes and essential infrastructure projects.

Mark Robinson, Scape Group Chief Executive

Home-grown talent has been a focus of the industry for a few years now, but startlingly there has still been a 38% drop in apprenticeship starts in England between 2016/17 and 2017/18. How do we keep moving if our own workforce is heading into retirement, EU workers are heading home and the next generation isn’t joining the industry? We need a concerted and joint effort by the industry, education providers and the government to alter the perception of construction and open the eyes of the future workforce to the opportunities it offers.

It’s looking increasingly likely that our exit from the EU will be delayed, and by all accounts we need more time.

Businesses do not want a no-deal scenario, but ultimately government needs to use this time to clarify their position on our access to crucial European labour. Otherwise, our targets to upgrade vital infrastructure, improve road and rail connections and deliver new homes are all well and good, but we are going to miss the bulls-eye.

[1] The EU8 countries joined the European Union in 2004 and includes Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia

Written by:

Mark Robinson

Group Chief Executive

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