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News & opinion

11 MAR. 2019

What happens if foreign construction workers leave the UK?

Workforce shortfalls resulting from Brexit could hit a lot deeper than just losing a few Polish plumbers or Bulgarian bricklayers as the stereotype would have us believe. The skills gap is a structural issue within our industry, rooted in factors that were building up well before the referendum.

This skills gap has been a concern for more than a decade, but Brexit has provided a lens through which to seriously analyse the precariousness of our workforce.

Arcadis investigated the potential impact on the UK’s construction workforce under “no change”, “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit” scenarios up to 2021. The predictions we arrived at were profound. Regardless of the result, the construction workforce is going to take a hit – a soft Brexit will see the industry lose out on 136,000 EU workers, while under a hard Brexit we could miss out on as many as 214,000. To put this into perspective, the UK has to recruit more than 400,000 people each year to deliver in line with our housing and infrastructure needs.

Where is the urgency in recognising this? The government has been very quick to reassure the NHS and the agriculture sector that they will have access to the EU workers they need, but we have not seen a similar dialogue concerning construction. This is despite the industry being responsible for a much bigger share of GDP.

It is not a matter of being negative about the UK’s ability to fill the skills gap – by adequately training and investing in the next generation we will bridge it eventually – but right now it comes down to a question of time. It will be impossible to make up this shortfall within two years.

Construction site at sunset
The UK has to recruit more than 400,000 people each year to deliver in line with our housing and infrastructure needs

In the meantime, British companies need to do everything they can to support their existing EU staff – encouraging them to apply for settled status while offering financial support when needed. They are looking for a certainty that is not forthcoming from the government.

As an island nation, the UK has relied on migrant labour for centuries. Post-Brexit, we have to remain attractive to investors and migrant workers if we are to deliver our infrastructure programmes. A crucial step would be to introduce three-to-five year working visas for elementary construction professionals, which would immediately mitigate 31,000 of the 214,000 gap.

Even if these Brexit shortfalls don’t come to pass, never before has there been a greater need for action and investment. We need to do far more to look at modern methods of construction, improve productivity and reduce waste, and divert the gains into training and development.

  • James Bryce is head of strategic workforce planning at Arcadis.

This article originally appeared in The Cash Issue of Modus (March 2019).