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MPs warned construction 'cannot recruit enough workers'

The construction sector will be unable to replace the workers expected to leave the industry, a parliamentary select committee has been warned.

Fergus Harradence, deputy director for construction at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said the indusry would be unable to replace workers without increasing its appeal to women and younger workers.

Giving evidence to the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee, Mr Harradence said construction needed to radical change to meet demand in the next decade against the backdrop of a dwindling labour pool.

He said: “There is simply no way, in the level of demographic change that they [construction firms] face, that they will be able to recruit the number of workers to maintain the labour-intensive business model.” 

Mr Harradence stated that 50 per cent of the construction workforce was aged over 50 and would look to either retire or scale down their work commitments in the coming decade. 

He said: “It is a plausible assumption that one third of people are likely to retire; other people will obviously move out of the industry.

“The level of recruitment we’ve seen in the industry has been significant, but it is not going to compensate for the people leaving.

“There are simply not enough young people who want to work in construction in the UK.”

Mr Harrdence’s comments come after a report by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) in September advised the government to restrict the number of lower-skilled EU workers who could enter the UK after Brexit.

Under current definitions, construction site trades are classed as lower-skilled.

The MAC was instructed by the government to assess the economic and social impacts of immigration and set out recommendations for the post-Brexit system.

Also giving evidence, Construction Products Association chief executive Diana Montgomery said one way to improve productivity was to link investment or innovation to major projects such as Crossrail.

She said: “Certain businesses are standing out – SMEs, because they are more agile, are starting to pick up the themes, and are looking at how their businesses are structured.

“We do well off the back of major projects, we had a lot [of opportunities] off the back of London 2012, and the same with Crossrail.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • Just how long have we known about this impending shortage? Since main contractors stopped directly employing trade apprentices. That older generation we keep talking about, well they went straight from school into an apprenticeship. These firms actually did the building work themselves, they did not, as is the norm now, sub-contract out the individual trades to others.
    Sub-contractors are reluctant to take on apprentices; it is easier to engage the number of self - employed tradespeople required for that particular contract. The peaks and troughs in the industry has led to flexible work forces; need them now, but may not need them three months later.
    Taking on a trade apprentice is a commitment that is not easy to make in the industry today.

    We were lucky that we did not have to think too hard about this change in the way the industry worked and the negative impact it had on apprenticeships; we had the free flow of workers from within the European Union to plaster over the cracks. Then Brexit arrived.

    The report talks about attracting younger people and women into the industry; well yes, we do need to attract more people. However, why bother? Even those we are attracting, have nowhere to go. Read on.

    Tell me why is it so difficult for people who complete their diploma / certificate levels in their chosen trade at FE colleges to get an employer to take them on as an apprentice.
    These people fall off the edge of a cliff on completing diploma courses; no experience to work in the industry and no-one willing to employ them as apprentices, so that they can gain experience and improve their skills.

    I come across this circumstance regularly. We need to prevent people from having to go and stack shelves at supermarkets or go on the dole, when they suddenly realise that their diplomas are useless to them when it comes finding work in the construction industry. Just think of all that funding wasted on their education until that point.

    There does not appear to be a practical pathway for the majority of would be trade apprentices. What a waste.

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  • Employing an apprentice is a long term commitment. Zero value frameworks and the boom and bust cycle of our industry makes this difficult if not impossible. Public sector clients (Government - DfT) has a responsibility not just to ‘insist’ (in the loosest sense) a ruling of 1 apprentice for every £3m spent with a supplier. They have an obligation to reward and recognise those of us who embrace the employment and development of apprentices. The playing field needs to be levelled and contractors who actively engage in this initiative need to be recognised for their noble efforts. Those of us who employ and develop apprentices are currently being commercially disadvantaged and not rewarded for attempting to address the skills shortage. We will keep talking about this forever more unless words are backed up with actions.

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