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Early in the morning of Friday 24 June 2016, the UK construction skills crisis potentially got a whole lot worse.

Once it was announced that the UK had voted to leave the European Union, construction bosses quickly began to wonder about the industry’s reliance on workers from across the English Channel. And, later, as the stock market plummeted – with homebuilders’ and contractors’ shares among the hardest hit – and as the value of sterling dropped to a 31-year low, the challenges facing construction grew even greater.

Of course, to some extent, the existing problems were of our own making. For years, the UK construction industry has failed to recruit and retain sufficient home-grown employees to staff its projects.

Why would people want to join an industry that has for decades been recognised as overly-complex, fragmented and price-fixated in its procurement approaches, adversarial in its supply chain relations, wasteful in its project execution, conservative in its adoption of new technologies, and short-termist and reactive in its approach to human skills development and R&D? (post). That short-termist approach to skills is evident in construction’s failure to retain older workers (Catch them when they’re older), its lack of diversity, and its failure to address fundamental issues that result in the industry being unattractive as a career option (To change the image, first change construction).

pre-referendum survey finding tweeted by ConstructionUKThe Brexit vote makes the skills issue even more challenging. Even before the referendum, many warned that a ‘Leave’ vote might hit construction particularly hard.

Construction industry leaders are now seeking greater collaboration between government and industry to address the skills crisis. For example…

  • the Federation of Master Builders CEO Brian Berry warned that “wrong moves by the Government could result in the skills crisis becoming a skills catastrophe” (reported in Training Journal)
  • Infrastructure Intelligence reported the thoughts of Arcadis consultancy boss, Alan Brookes, who said:

“Construction markets are likely to become more volatile in the short term and we need to consider a joined-up approach to sustaining the capacity and capability of the industry. … One of the big questions we now face is: how can we ensure we have enough people with the right skills to build the houses, roads and rail lines of the future? In the future, European labour may no longer be the safety-valve it has been, so we must plan to use the workforce differently. Using more offsite components and investing in skills and the management of projects will now prove absolutely vital.”

  • The same article also quoted EY’s Malcolm Bairstow:

“A significant proportion of the UK’s builders and construction labour is sourced from Europe and there will be uncertainty over what happens next. If we start to see a movement of these workers out of the UK, this would inevitably cause a slow-down in construction and house-building which could also have a significant impact on development across the country.”

  • And in Construction Manager today, the National Federation of Builders CEO Richard Beresford says: “The lack of skills for the pipeline of work we have is the defining structural issue for the industry. … We need to rethink how we draw people to construction and the breadth of opportunity available.”

At least we have been aware of the skills gap for some years and Government and industry have started to take steps to improve the industry, to foster recruitment and training, and to be more strategic in its pipeline planning. SkillsPlanner is therefore now more important than ever in helping UK construction anticipate future construction skills demand and ensuring there is sufficient supply of well-trained workers to meet that demand.

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