The construction sector is a key industry in the UK which does not come without its challenges. A shortage of both skilled and unskilled labour is a longstanding issue within the sector, with a reduction in the amount of new labour coming from the EU already apparent with the impact of Covid-19 combined with the looming full enactment of Brexit at the end of 2020.
Aside from this, the weakening of the pound since the 2016 referendum on EU membership has increased the cost of imported materials such as steel or fuel. Indeed, Albert Dravins, construction director of subcontractor Modebest Builders, has indicated that these imports have cost as much as nine per cent more in recent years.
Concerned that skilled labour may become even scarcer once Brexit is fully enacted at the end of the year, Dravins insists that the government must consider the sector’s needs when its new points-based immigration system comes into effect.
He said: “The UK construction industry is dependent on free movement of labour within Europe. Modular buildings and precast concrete will be employed and demand will rise more quickly than the manufacturing companies can keep up with. The engineering design teams are also under pressure to keep up, and as a result the majority of their detailing is now carried out in foreign countries.”
Dravins added: “There are a number of challenges that our sector will continue to face as we move forward. The labour shortage, both skilled and unskilled, needs to be considered by the government and they must ensure that a migrant workforce can still be accessed without penalties. We are already seeing a reduction in the amount of new labour arriving from the EU, and this is adding to the existing labour shortage issues. This is particularly prevalent in London, where almost a third of the construction workforce is made up of EU nationals.”
While the effects of the Covid-19 situation could see the outsourcing of work to firms based abroad reduce, the two-pronged impact of the pandemic and Brexit will limit the UK’s ability to turn to foreign labour to fill skills shortages, leaving the industry looking to the domestic workforce to pick up the pieces.
To finally tackle the skills gap and upskill the domestic workforce in readiness to step in, fill the void and help the industry, Dravins believes that contractors must collaborate with the education sector and bring about a change in focus in how youngsters are introduced to the industry to help change perceptions.
He explained: “To rectify some of the challenges our sector is facing, we think there should be a closer relationship between schools, further education and contractors.”
Dravins believes that mandatory placement schemes for young people at certain stages of education could help bring more people into the industry and help change negative perceptions of the sector, and with Covid-19 dealing a blow to the labour market leaving thousands of people out of work and prepared to update their skillset and move into new industries, now may be the perfect time for a shake-up to address the skills gap once and for all.
Dravins elaborated: “Mandatory placement schemes would help young people interested in a range of trades build skills and it could also help address the shortage of high-quality construction staff in the UK.”
Furthermore, in line with the government’s emphasis on a green economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic, Dravins wishes to see the construction sector play its part by becoming more environmentally conscious.
“We do want to see the sector become more environmentally responsible, as the construction industry accounts for 20 per cent of global emissions, which is not acceptable.”