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This is how we face down the Brexit skills challenge

Steve Radley

The date for leaving the European Union is fast approaching.

And as the deadline nears, one thing amid all the political uncertainty and debate is for sure: employers are finding it harder to recruit skilled construction workers.

The CITB’s new research into migrant workers in construction illustrates Brexit’s increasing impact on firms. A third of employers are now feeling its effects, rising to half in London.

Firms have told us there are fewer clients and they are investing less, and that supply chain costs and staff shortages are rising. And crucially, almost half of employers say they expect it to get harder to recruit skilled staff in the near future, with more than half predicting some impact to their business if access to skilled migrant workers is restricted.

The research also shows the number of migrant workers in construction growing – one in every seven workers is from outside the UK, up from one in every eight in 2015.

Their profile has changed too. Romanians have replaced Poles and Bulgarians as the largest overseas group working in the industry, up from just over a quarter in 2015 to two-thirds in 2017.

A twin-track strategy

Employers tell us they expect to increase their efforts on recruitment and training, but few have firm plans. They say that ‘we’ll get through this’ just like they have in every other crisis, which shows how resilient construction is. But muddling through is not good enough when we already have skills gaps and our skills needs are growing.

“Paying Premier League salaries while operating on Championship margins won’t work; we must break out of the current cycle”

We need a twin-track strategy, with industry working with government to agree how it can maintain access to the vital talent of migrant workers and growing its investment in the domestic workforce. With the shape of our future EU relationship unclear, we can only guess what the former will look like. But we can crack on with the second half of the task.

Anyone can come up with a half-decent shopping list on what to do, but this simply isn’t enough. We need to agree the key outcomes we want to achieve and the obstacles we will work through together.

Fortunately, the new sector deal gives us a good start. Its focus on boosting innovation and productivity with support for digital skills and offsite construction points to the future workforce we will need to attract and develop.

Industry competition

Reading between the lines, we will be competing with many other industries to fill many of the new roles being created. So we need to get better at attracting and retaining the people we need. Changing how our potential future workforce views us will help.

But it’s also about competing head on with other industries on pay and the working environment. Paying Premier League salaries while operating on Championship margins won’t work; we must break out of the current cycle.

We must also break down the recruitment and retention challenge into commitments that can be delivered. For example, small annual rises in apprenticeship starts, in the number of apprentices completing their course and going on to work in construction, and also getting more FE students to progress into a construction job gets us some way down the road.

But we may also need to look at other options such as extending the working lives of older workers, attracting experienced workers with transferable skills from other industries, and training up more of those out of work. None of them are easy, so we need to prioritise and agree on how we will take the chosen ones forward.

By this autumn, the government will tell us what Brexit really means. By then we need to be ready with our answers to the skills challenge it poses.

Steve Radley is policy director at the CITB

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