Brexit and the impact on construction skills


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"...There is no domestic pool of skilled and semi-skilled workers waiting to be employed if non-UK workers leave, and there is no prospect of this changing within a timescale of five to eight years..."

(Federation of Piling Specialists, written submission to the the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment (APPGE-BE) Inquiry of Spring 2017 on the impact of Brexit on construction skills training and R&D)

On 17 July the APPGE-BE published its report, Building on Brexit - How leaving the EU must drive modernisation and training in the built environment. The Report represents a consensus view, formed across the main political parties and across both Houses of Parliament, on the likely impact of Brexit upon the UK's construction industry and, in particular, the urgent need for an intensification of training, technical education and R&D across the sector at every level, serving every age group. Whether intentionally or not, and despite its mild language, the report amounts to an indictment of successive governments' and industry failure over generations to invest adequately in vocational skills training and R&D.

The result, we are told, is that the UK is left with a construction industry which is inadequately equipped to meet the demands of HM Government's much vaunted £500 billion programme of infrastructure and housing investment planned for the next 15 years or so.

The report contains a series of well-supported observations as to the technologically and socially backward state of the UK's construction industry. Deficiencies include chronic underinvestment in R&D; the lack of in-work training; the low levels of vocational training (amounting to the "virtual collapse" of vocational training at FE level, according to one leading academic); the continuing near-absence of women and people of ethnic minority background entering the industry; and (seemingly, if not quite demonstrably, in consequence) the persistently poor levels of productivity across UK construction which, uniquely among the major industrial sectors, have not improved since the early 1990s.

We are also informed that rates of retirement and the lack of joiners are such that if current trends continue, and even if Brexit were not to happen (i.e. assuming the majority of non-UK EU workers who are currently engaged in the industry stay), our workforce will be 200,000 short by 2020.

It is not only the builders and the specialist trades who are under pressure. RICS predicts a "between 25 and 64" per cent shortfall in compulsory purchase surveyors to support HS2 and the other 40 or so major infrastructure projects planned over the next 15 years, the Chartered Institute of Architects reporting a similar shortage. For its part, RIBA expresses deep concern at the threat to the transferability and international marketability of the UK's architectural profession (a fairly rare good news story for UK construction over the last 10 - 15 years) and calls for the continual recognition of qualifications across the EU throughout a transitional period of at least five, preferably 10 years.

The tone of the report, while not downright pessimisitc, is deeply anxious, and its central contention is that significant new forms of state intervention are needed to steer us away from the cliff-edge effect of a collapse in national capacity. It is implicitly acknowledged that one arguable benefit of Brexit has been to shake us out of our complacency and to force us to face up to the long-present structural problems which access to migrant labour, mainly from Eastern Europe, has up to now partially disguised. As the report says:

" . . even without Brexit, it is our view that things cannot go on the way they are. The industry needs little short of a revolution in terms of its training culture, approach and investment, if it is to attract and train a domestic workforce in sufficient numbers."

On the other hand, it is clear that the type of Brexit advocated is the softest variety: one which allows EU migrant workers currently engaged in the industry to remain and continue working throughout a transitional period of at least five and possibly 10 years; one which ensures the long term mutual recognition of professional qualifications and quality standards between the EU's member states and the UK; and one which allows the highest levels of knowledge transfer between EU and UK research institutes.

There is a more radical proposal, carrying a clear flavour of economic nationalism more obviously designed to equip us to cope with life outside the EU rather than to prolong our relationship with it. This is the report's call for a new pan-industrial institution for skills and research, to unite the different sections of the industry into a national programme of R&D and product development, and to direct a massive scaling-up of digital design and fabrication, and modular and roboticised construction. This proposal is an interesting echo of government policy during the immediate post-war years when, long before the era of globalisation, efforts to rebuild our exhausted industrial base included the creation of a series of state-sponsored R&D institutions to work collaboratively with the private sector and to pool and share R&D. There was a central research body for every strategic industry of the time, whether automotive, civil aviation, textiles, agriculture or power engineering. (The BRE, whose CEO contributed to the report, is one of the survivors, albeit in reduced and commercially independent form.) There is a sort of logic to this given that several commentators have described Brexit as the biggest structural challenge to the management of our economy since World War II.

The wake-up call is welcome, as is the clarity of the committee's recommendations; but there is an uneasy sense of evasion of certain crucial questions: first, if construction is to receive special treatment in view of its strategic importance etc, then why not agriculture, ICT, pharmaceuticals, food and drink and financial services? (Automotive was tipped the wink almost the day after the vote.) The long-term transitional arrangements for the strategic industry and its workforce will become the rule, not the exception. The political arguments in favour of this arrangement, led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has apparently been lost.

Secondly, the sections of the report which are intended to address the need for a new digital revolution are thin on detail; and one has the overall impression that the immediate priority is to shore up the industry broadly in its current form, even though it is admitted to be fragmented, labour-intensive and resource-greedy. A clear plan for its transformation into an industry which is holistic, digitally-skilled, low-carbon, resource-prudent and regenerative is still awaited.

This article is taken from Building Interest - Summer 2017.

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