Talk to anyone in the specialist contracting sector and they will tell you how significant and important non-UK employees are to its running. Firstly they serve as long-term direct employees, filling the UK skills gap of STEM-trained workers and secondly, they provide a mobile temporary workforce to resource the demand peaks of the market, often as short-term cross-border intra-company transfers. However, they also support the sector indirectly, bringing a valuable educational, technical and cultural diversity to specialist contractors, strengthening businesses by accelerating change and bringing new techniques and productivity improvements.
The cyclical nature of work in specialist contracting is perhaps the biggest issue facing skills growth in the sector. For some very specialist techniques there is no continuity of work in any individual country and therefore cross-border mobility of employees and equipment is the only route to making these techniques available in domestic markets, as well as maintaining the various skill sets. It’s not all about importing skills either, as many of the developers and owners of these novel techniques are UK specialists, who are able to generate significant export benefits from such arrangements, and so play their small part towards balancing the trade deficit encouraged by consecutive governments.
Should the specialist contractor sector lose long-term access to non-UK workers, either as a result of post-Brexit fallout or through further tightening of an already bureaucratic immigration system, then there simply isn’t a pool of domestic skilled and semi-skilled workers sitting there waiting to take their place. In fact, given the present skills shortage, high UK employment levels relative to mainland Europe and the long lead time in developing new home-grown talent, the prospect of any change in skilled worker availability is as long as 8 years away. As a result, any rapid change in the availability of non-UK workers will profoundly damage the construction sector, reducing capacity and negatively affecting the affordability of infrastructure and construction projects.
With the general election not too far away, the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) is calling on all parties to address this issue as part of their manifestos. It is suggesting a number of actions, which incidentally also formed part of the FPS’s submission to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment’s (APPGEBE) evidence gathering into the issue of skills shortages in construction.
Specifically, the FPS is calling for European Union (EU) nationals already employed in the construction sector to be given the immediate secure and permanent right to remain and work in the UK. The UK construction sector needs these people, and neither employers nor employees can afford a period of uncertainty or a sudden loss of capacity. The oft-proposed ‘2 year visa without extension’ for non-UK employees is no solution – few employers will invest in training staff with such short term prospects. In addition, the recent introduction of the Immigration Skills Charge should be reversed for construction, as it directly increases payroll costs (particularly administration costs) without changing the fundamental drivers of UK indigenous construction employment. At the very least, charges levied on construction businesses in the intervening period must be ring-fenced to support construction-related skills training and other employment initiatives. This latter point aligns with the FPS’s long-standing view that all training and apprenticeship levies on construction and infrastructure businesses should be rational, ring-fenced and deployed for industry-specific training and development.
It is also necessary to ensure that reciprocal access to work rights for EU/UK construction professionals and skilled/semi-skilled operatives are protected in Brexit negotiations. Intra-company transfers are now an integral part of the business model of specialists and reciprocal access without introducing burdensome bureaucracy is essential.
Aside from stabilising the regulatory environment, it is just as important that industry is incentivised to change. In this regard, public sector procurement practices should be improved to reward construction businesses that demonstrate responsible training and employment practices. It is an unfortunate fact that direct employment and investment in long-term skills training are not valued in a way that makes a material difference to competition outcomes and this must change.
The government must work more closely with trade associations and industry bodies, such as Build UK and CIC to improve the visibility, continuity and predictability of public sector infrastructure workload. At a more grass-roots level, STEM subjects should continue to be a priority, improving the employability of UK school leavers and, in the long-term, the supply of home-grown talent.
Taking all this in the round, one might conclude that it’s time to treat indigenous construction capability as a strategic necessity – could this be where government’s Industrial Strategy takes us? But be under no illusion, time is of the essence. Uncertainty and indecision through the Brexit process has the potential to accelerate any natural exodus of skilled and semi-skilled EU employees brought about by Brexit itself. With the government likely to lean heavily on construction and infrastructure projects to smooth the UK’s EU exit, this would not be good news for UK Plc!