Almost two years ago to the day, the result came in: Brexit was on.
At the time of the referendum, I was working on a legal journal. By the following day, I was reporting on lawyers seeking Irish citizenship so they could continue taking cases to the European Court of Justice.
The legal industry doesn’t suffer from a lack of budding trainees (it has a surplus) so this didn’t raise any concerns about a possible skills gap. But for the construction industry, the reaction was rather different.
So far, the number of EU nationals in the UK across all industries is holding relatively steady, despite a modest fall of 28,000 in the year to March 2018.
With 80 per cent of main contractors struggling to recruit bricklayers, 76 per cent lacking carpenters and 56 per cent wanting for plasterers, it is up to David Davis and co to ensure the final Brexit deal does not exacerbate construction’s longstanding skills gap.
Just two years before the referendum, the government hit the restart button on apprenticeships following the Richard Review in 2012. In a perfect world, the subsequent efforts at reform should have provided an antidote to fears about skills post-Brexit.
Yet four years since the overhaul was announced, many of the new apprenticeship standards such as bricklaying and plastering have still not been approved for delivery by the Institute for Apprenticeships. The standard for carpentry and joinery was only signed off in February 2018, after nearly three years in development.
One sector that did receive some forewarning about the need to boost recruitment is the nuclear industry, which has known since 2011 of the government’s plans for as many as six new plants to be built by 2030.
The sector is currently just about managing to meet its skills demand, but is falling short of its target to recruit 7,000 additional people every year – it currently achieves around 3,000.
And this is just one segment of the wider industry that is facing rocketing demand and increased pressure to deliver assets over the next two decades.
There are questions about whether the workforce will be sufficient to construct the hundreds of high-rise buildings planned for London, as well as concerns over how we will deal with the timebomb of an ageing workforce.
The industry is facing various challenges. But the combination of Brexit, burgeoning pipelines and mass retirements means that skills is perhaps the most important of them all.
Government would do well to understand this and ensure it doesn’t make matters worse by botching Brexit.