The construction sector in London employs currently around 300,000 people; and half of them are born outside the UK.
But the government has announced stricter immigration and citizenship rules will come into place after Brexit, including the end to freedom of movement.
At that point, the construction industry will face some simple but stark questions: who will do the jobs? Who will fill the vacancies? We are already at full employment.
The solution starts with teaching British workers new skills.
This will require business-led investment in apprenticeships, T-levels, and training. That will take time to deliver results.
But we need to create a new streamlined immigration system, focused on growth. That’s why we’ve put forward an immigration solution based on an analysis of various immigration systems from around the world and input from more than 200 of the capital’s largest employers.
Four key reforms
We’re calling for the net migration target to be scrapped. We must not leave the sector peering over a recruitment cliff-edge; we need to give employers time to adjust to a post free-movement environment.
We also suggest four key reforms that will support the construction sector: updating the tier two visa; improving the shortage occupation list; developing a digital immigration system; and creating a new independent Office for Migration Responsibility.
Tier two visa update
The existing £30,000 salary threshold for a tier two visa is too high.
It should be lowered to the level of the London Living Wage – £20,155. According to the Mayor, approximately 46,000 construction jobs are held by EU citizens earning less than £30,000 a year in London. As we train up our UK workforce, we can look at raising the threshold again, but doing that now would put us even further behind on building new homes and vital infrastructure.
Shortage occupation list
Currently, the shortage occupation list allows employers to hire people from overseas who meet identified skills shortages.
It is set by the Migration Advisory Committee and updated every five years. Instead, this list should be aligned with the government’s Industrial Strategy and reviewed annually to make it more responsive to the economy’s needs.
Take things digital
As freedom of movement ends, the Home Office will have to handle many more applications.
A digital system would not only cut red tape but also offer accurate, real time data.
A resident labour market test would be applied to prioritise UK workers. Essential workers would be fast-tracked. A Swiss-style emergency brake could be introduced for occupations where UK unemployment is 8 per cent or higher.
A new office
Finally, the Migration Advisory Committee should be given statutory powers, like the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), drawing on input from government and businesses to provide an ongoing, evidence-led review of migration into the UK and its role in our economy.
As we leave the EU, we should be scrapping the net migration target, cutting down income constraints, and adopting a more dynamic approach to the Shortage Occupation List.
If our construction sector is to be at full strength post-Brexit, then it must be able to continue to recruit the workers it needs. This means rolling out the welcome mat to global talent, not slamming the door shut.
Mark Hilton is executive director for employment and skills at London First