Blog: The ‘brickie visa’ won’t solve the talent crisis in UK construction

Kelly Boorman
Kelly Boorman

Kelly Boorman, head of construction at RSM, on some possible ways to address the skills gap in UK construction.

The recent suggestion from one think tank that low-skilled EU workers should be granted a temporary ‘brickie visa’ after Brexit to help the UK construction sector plug the skills gap received a cautious welcome from some in the industry. However, a more fundamental change to recruitment, talent management and training will be required to fully address the current crisis.

The sustainable supply of skilled workers is critical to the UK construction sector which is currently facing a number of challenges.

First is the ageing workforce. More than 400,000 construction workers are expected to retire over the next 10 years according to the CITB, without the next generation of leaders ready to take their place.

Second is of course the UK’s decision to exit the European Union. Anecdotal evidence suggests that employers are already finding it harder to attract and retain staff. This could get worse if the status of EU citizens currently living and working in the UK is not resolved soon.

And then there is the post-Brexit challenge. The UK construction sector relies heavily on recruiting talent from across the EU. According to some estimates, around 12 per cent of the UK’s construction workforce are foreign nationals, the majority of whom hail from EU countries.

In London the proportion of EU nationals working in construction is even higher - one in four according to City Hall estimates. It’s therefore very clear that any changes to freedom of movement rules could significantly threaten the availability of talent for the UK construction sector.

If these pressures weren’t enough, the UK is on the verge of entering one of the most active periods of infrastructure development since the post-war period. And that’s without the pressure on the industry to build more residential accommodation to tackle the country’s housing crisis. The Conservative Party, should they win the election, promises to meet its 2015 commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and a further half a million by the end of 2022.

So what can the industry do to address this talent shortage?

Engage with schools and colleges – The number of students taking at least one STEM subject at A-Level has reduced significantly in recent years. Firms must engage with schools and colleges at an early stage and find ways to spark interest in engineering and construction.

Embrace diversity – Today just 15 per cent of construction workers are women. By increasing diversity, businesses can access bigger pools of talent, improve innovation and boost growth. There have been some positive initiatives in recent years to encourage more gender diversity but the construction industry has some way to go to demonstrate that it can offer attractive long term career opportunities for women.

Increase apprenticeships – the numbers of apprenticeships in UK construction has been steadily growing since 2012/13 but the numbers are yet to return to the levels seen a decade ago. The apprenticeship levy scheme will go some way to rectifying this, but employers need to get right behind apprenticeship initiatives and invest appropriately.

Reform recruitment, talent management and training – firms need to carry out a long-term assessment of their HR challenges and opportunities and develop a holistic strategy that will find the best talent, nurture it and retain it in the longer term.

The construction sector has shown its resilience in recent years to bounce back from the economic crash but the headwinds facing the sector show no sign of abating. Finding a sustainable long-term solution to the talent crisis should be top of the list of priorities.

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