The UK government has stated that they intend to deny visas to workers that are classified as low-skilled. While many industries will suffer because of this, it will create particularly big problems in the world of construction.
During the last recession, a number of construction projects had to be put on hold. This made the industry more dependent on migrant labour. Many domestic workers moved to other industries due to a lack of work. When work picked up again, there was a skills shortage within the workforce in the UK. Foreign workers were able to pick up the slack. According to data that the Office for National Statistics provided, approximately 8% of construction workers in the UK are foreign. 27% of workers in London are migrants.
Thanks to this, the industry hasn’t been heavily impacted by the decline in apprenticeships. The Construction Industry Training board estimates that, across the next five years, approximately 168,500 jobs will need to be filled. Since Brexit will make it more difficult to access migrant labour, the domestic workforce will need to be expanded dramatically. Unfortunately, data from the government suggests that the migrant workforce has been declining. The number of workers in England beginning an apprenticeship decreased by 4.7% between 2018 and 2019.
The sector is also poised to lose many of its workers. In 2011, data showed that 1 out of every 5 construction workers born in the United Kingdom was over the age of 55. When restrictions on migrant labour begin in 2021, many of these workers will be retiring. Not having access to foreign labour during this time could destroy a number of construction companies.
Beyond that, the government fails to understand the skill sets that many construction workers have. Migrants that are recruited to work in the UK construction industry have experience and skills in important trades. This clashes with the image portrayed by Brexit advocates. On a more positive note, the government has proposed adding plasterers and carpenters to the shortage occupation list. Unfortunately, other important positions, including plumbers, electricians, and bricklayers, are not being included on the list of occupations with vacancies that cannot be entirely filled by domestic workers.
Skills Offered by Migrant Workers
There’s another important factor that the government appears to be overlooking. Boris Johnson has been making major announcements about house construction and HS2. New infrastructure means more construction projects, but there may not be enough workers to complete these projects. These projects will create many vacancies, and the domestic workforce may not be able to fill them.
There are already concerns in the industry about a shortage of skilled workers. In once survey, which polled over 400 homebuilders, only 48% of respondents believed that it was possible to reach the government’s goals for new home construction. Many respondents stated that a lack of skilled labour was the reason these targets could not be met.
Looking to the Future
In order to resolve this, the government must do two things. To start, they need to increase the number of skilled trades that are on the shortage occupation list. Along with that, the government must ensure that freedom of movement continues past 31 December. If that happens migrant labour can cover any gaps while domestic workers get the training they need. Training skilled positions in the construction industry can take years, which is why the industry needs to have access to foreign workers going forward.
The domestic market can’t usually provide all the workers necessary for large-scale projects or projects that are highly technical. Because of this, industries need to have access to a flexible workforce from abroad to gill in gaps as needed. If this isn’t an option, Boris Johnson’s plans for new infrastructure won’t be possible, and the construction industry will suffer. Allowing construction companies access to foreign labour will help to ensure that this new infrastructure can be completed.
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