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Immigrants are vital to our industry

AGENDA - Construction would be nowhere without immigration, writes Stephen Gee

IMMIGRATION is something of a noble tradition in construction.At a time when the issue is generating much debate, both in the run-up to the recent general election and with moves from the CITB to tackle immigration in the industry, it is worth considering that many of our greatest buildings were created with the help of foreign architects, engineers and labourers.Cathedrals, castles, shipyards and a large proportion of our road and rail systems would not be here without an influx of helping hands.

Even Wembley Stadium is being constructed by an Australian firm.

The driving factor within construction is now, as it has ever been, supply and demand. An Adult Learning Inspectorate report published in May revealed that the industry is currently 300,000 workers short of capacity and needs to recruit and train some 88,000 new entrants each year for the next five years just to meet industry targets - a huge figure that will be simply impossible to achieve without immigrant labour - and not just from Eastern Europe, which will doubtless play an important role, but from throughout the world. How else can we find the necessary skills and labour?

But despite an acknowledgement that our foreign relatives have a part to play in making up this shortfall, all too often the debate turns to focus on the negative - language barriers, health and safety awareness, qualifications and quality of workmanship.While these are important issues they are typically discussed in the context of onsite trades.To focus solely on this ignores the bigger picture - sustainable growth for construction.To achieve this we must recruit at all levels of the construction project.

My own company, John Rowan & Partners, would not have survived without considerable input from foreign workers from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Asia and we now enjoy a diverse workforce.This is a scenario that many other companies will doubtless relate to and is now commonplace.

During the 1970s there were 100,000 learners on construction apprenticeships, yet this figure is now around 35,000. From staple trades through to consultants, the industry is desperately short of labour and there are no signs that we can find this shortfall from within the UK.CITBfunded scholarship schemes at universities and domestic initiatives to make construction an attractive career for our school leavers will take years to come on stream and may not deliver.

In my view the question is not whether we should encourage immigrant labour into the country but how it is managed.Yes, we need to achieve basic standards of competence and harmonisation to create a fair and structured environment in which both employers and employees know where they are and what to expect, but buy working together and with commitment we can achieve this.

For all those who work in construction, the single greatest challenge is to manage growth and a huge part of the answer lies in our attitudes towards immigrant labour. It's time to learn from our forebears and recognise the huge amount to be gained from encouraging a positive influx of skilled immigrants into the market.With the right safeguards and training they can help us to build the next generation of monuments to the 21st century.