Addressing a post-Brexit skills shortage in the construction sector

Will Jeffwitz
Will Jeffwitz

Will Jeffwitz, 05 Mar 2019

A post-Brexit shortage of construction workers will be a significant barrier to building more homes. The National Housing Federation is backing calls from the wider construction sector for the government to take urgent action.

In a survey of housing professionals last year, two thirds said they were facing a skills shortage, citing the aging workforce, an inability to attract young people into construction, and exiting the EU as the main causes. In a Federation of Master Builders report, 68% of SME construction firms reported a shortage of available bricklayers while 63% were struggling to hire carpenters and joiners.

We raised the issue of construction skill shortages back in 2017 and have made the case repeatedly to the government since then, not least in a roundtable at Number 10 last year. But as uncertainty over the outcome of Brexit has increased, the situation looks set to worsen – particularly in London where the majority of the construction workforce are non-UK nationals. There is a fear that uncertainty is already driving people away. During a post-Brexit transition period, or immediately following a no-deal Brexit, EU workers in the UK will have to register for settled status, which might persuade more people to leave. 

Meanwhile the government’s Immigration White Paper, published in December, proposes a new post-Brexit immigration system which would effectively bar most construction workers from coming to the UK to work for more than a year. Instead it focuses on ‘skilled’ workers earning more than £30,000 per year.

In the longer term, housing associations along with many others involved in construction are committed to training the next generation of workers through apprenticeships, employment support and training. But this will take time and in the meantime we need to be building more homes each year, not scaling back.

That’s why we’re joining with the wider construction sector to call on the government to take this issue seriously. The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) brings together organisations from across the sector and is leading the sector’s response on this issue. Their report released last week laid out what actions construction firms would take in the event of a no-deal Brexit to support existing workers to stay. But it also called on the government to rethink its proposals on a post-Brexit immigration system to ensure construction workers are still able to secure permanent work in the UK.

The government has said it will consult on the Immigration White Paper over the course of this year. We’ll continue to work closely with our members, and with partners across the construction sector via the CLC, to persuade the government that without construction workers it will be impossible to build the homes the country needs.