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Brexit aside, ageing workers are a huge concern

Tom Fitzpatrick

Which should be of greater concern to the construction industry: EU workers leaving these shores, or UK workers retiring?

Mace boss Mark Reynolds says he is equally worried by both – and rightly so.

For those who directly employ labour, retaining EU workers is a more pressing issue (a third of the non-UK construction workforce are labourers). But combined, Brexit and the ageing industry have the potential to play havoc with the UK’s planned infrastructure over the coming decade.

ONS data released this week shows an average of 2.2m people worked in the industry between 2014 and 2016. Of those workers, 7 per cent were from EU countries and a further 3 per cent were non-EU.

When you combine those workers with the 500,000 expected to retire over the next decade, you have the industry’s defining issue of the coming decade.

The two factors are also inextricably linked because resident non-UK construction workers are typically younger: just 18 per cent are aged 45 or above, compared with almost half of UK nationals (47 per cent).

Once again, on this most important of issues, the industry’s default setting has been to keep its head down or work in silos behind the scenes to seek assurances.

It is not helped by a feckless Cabinet that is divided on Brexit and a prime minister who often appears beholden to those in the media who shout the loudest.

So, to whom must this industry turn to get the skilled workers needed when the people who are responsible for exiting the EU (and also represent the industry’s biggest single client) don’t have the answers?

This week we’re taking a closer look at the skills challenges in the industry, from the impact of Brexit to areas where demand is high including new-build nuclear and high-rise London buildings.

There’s specific work being done in sectors like nuclear including looking at people with transferable skills (more of this, please), while in London contractors delivering high-rise buildings are using incentives like gym memberships to attract trades.

The government this week announced a £22m investment in 20 onsite skills training centres, which shows that it too is concerned.

Skills minister Anne Milton writes in CN that this industry “needs an injection of skilled people to make sure everyone has a roof over their heads”.

Skills constraints have been an issue for long enough in this industry; they’re not about to fix themselves and the old film quote, ‘If you build it, [they] will come” does not apply.

What’s the name of the film? Aptly enough, Field of Dreams.

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