UK construction suffers as migrant workers leave

By Leila Steed09 December 2021

The UK constructor sector is struggling to cope as the number of migrant workers has continued to fall, according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).

The organisation’s Migration in UK Construction 2021 report, which covers the period from late 2019 to September 2021, shows that the number of migrant construction workers in the country fell by 8.3% in 2020, with 25,000 fewer workers in the sector than in 2019.

The report found that “in London, where half of the construction workforce are migrant workers, the number of migrants fell by 15% from 145,000 in 2019 to 125,000 in 2020”.

“With output growth at its highest level in almost 25 years, the industry is finding it difficult to cope. This is partly due to the number of construction workers who left the UK since the EU Freedom of Movement ended,” said the CITB.

“Additional pressures experienced because of the pandemic have seen even greater numbers leave and not return. These factors coupled with the surge in demand since Covid-19 restrictions have eased have left the industry under pressure”.

James Butcher, Head of Policy and Research at the National Federation of Building (NFB), said, “This is a really tough time for construction businesses, our members are regularly reporting that they are struggling to find the workforce they need to meet demand on site and the latest vacancy rate statistics indicate the situation is acute.

“The report findings confirm what many in the industry feared – a significant and sudden drop in the number of migrant workers in the construction workforce which, coupled with the lower apprenticeship starts and difficulties securing FE conversions, mean the short-term pressures are significant and there is no easy way out.”

The report also cited data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which shows that year-on-year wage rises, including bonuses and arrears peaked at +15.1% nationwide in May 2021, and continued to record an above average +6% in September 2021, against a whole economy reading of +4%, supporting anecdotal evidence that labour shortages are driving up prices”.

Alasdair Reisner, Chief Executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), said, “Our members continue to experience very challenging conditions for recruitment and retention of workers. The likely outcome of this will be that those areas that have historically had higher levels of migrant labour, and generally higher salaries, such as London and the South East, will now pull resource from the rest of the country, exacerbating skills difficulties nationwide.”

The CITB said while the Government’s Points Based Immigration System (PBIS), which allows UK companies to recruit foreign nationals, had been running for some time, a great number of construction firms - particularly small and medium sized ones - were not actually using it.

The report found that a number of factors were preventing companies from using the scheme. These included the cost of sponsoring workers’ applications, and the eight to ten week processing timescale of the PBIS - which is far too long to meet their staffing needs.

Contractors also reported that the level of English required by the system excludes potential workers with English good enough to get by onsite and that they had difficulty identifing whether worker qualifications from other countries were suitable or not for a non-UK national to be sponsored.

The research also found that in additional to limited IT resources, smaller construction firms feel that they cannot justify spending the manhours going through the PBIS process, when they could be working. 

Additionally, larger employers reported that the skilled worker visa does not cover skilled trades such as dryliners or asbestos and insulator workers.  

Steve Radley, Director of Policy at CITB, said, “The transition out of the EU and into a new immigration system was always going to be difficult and the pandemic and interrupted supplies of materials has intensified skills and cost pressures.

“We know that developing homegrown talent will be at the heart of addressing these skills challenges and that government is taking action to grow apprenticeships and to get more college students into construction jobs.

“Employer investment in key skill areas such as apprenticeships is recovering and should improve further in 2022. But for many, their struggle to deliver on the current workloads is hampering their ability to free up time to invest in training just when it’s most needed.”

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