The Financial Times this week reported on an exodus of EU workers from the UK that has left the British construction industry facing an acute shortage of labourers in some specialist trades. The article, which includes a quote from FIS CEO Iain McIlwee refers to a looming crisis for the government’s “build back better” strategy.
FIS and others have advised that unless urgent steps were taken, work on some projects could slow this summer. The article talks of a sector already under pressure because of an ageing workforce, a shortage of key building materials such as timber and steel as well as Covid-19 restrictions. Commenting on the situation Suzannah Nichol, chief executive of Build UK, called for a “more nuanced approach to immigration”. “There are already lots of pockets of shortages in specific trades and across particular spots in the UK,” she said. Employment in the construction sector fell from 2.3m in 2017 to 2.1m at the end of 2020, representing a 4% fall in UK-born workers and a 42% fall in EU workers, according to the Office for National Statistics. More than 500,000 UK-born construction workers are expected to retire in the next 10 to 15 years.
Iain McIlwee, Chief Executive of the Finishes and Interiors Sector trade body, went on to say that by the end of March, almost half of FIS members were reporting labour shortages. “It’s not so much that we can’t or won’t change and train or retrain UK workers but that the timescale is unrealistic,” he said. “There simply isn’t enough flex in the new immigration system.”
This issue was also discussed on Politics Today on the BBC, with Suzannah Nichol urging Government again to look at how we can manage evolution to a new normal and warning that there are still a number of unknowns surrounding summer travel and long-term settlement issues. Iain McIlwee of the FIS noted that whilst it was good to see the issue getting coverage, the response from the Home Office and ability to flex the immigration system was still disappointing. “My fear is that the debate about labour shortages that is impacting hospitality and other sectors is getting confused with the skills shortage that we are talking about in construction. There may be enough bodies in the domestic workforce, but there is more to delivering a skilled construction workforce than handing a former Debenhams worker a hard hat and calling them a dryliner – it takes time to adjust. In our sector we have an employment footprint of around 250,000 and around 40% (at the start of 2020) were from the EU. To make up for churn we need to recruit somewhere north of 3,000 new trade operatives a year. In terms of domestic workers we need to make up for the shortfall of 1,200 workers that we would historically have attracted from the EU and for every 5% that don’t lock in through the settlement scheme by the end of June, we need to find that number again. We need time to change the culture, build the training capacity and manage change. We lost last year to COVID, what we don’t need now is lectures on what we should have done (whilst adapting to COVID and trying to keep the economy going), but support and time to manage change.
FIS is keeping track of shortage issues and providing guidance to businesses via the FIS website here.