The UK construction industry is the cornerstone of our economy – it employs three million people and accounts for 7% of gross domestic product (GDP). But it’s not just about economics, as without a flourishing construction industry we would not have the schools, hospitals, homes, roads and railways that our society demands.
For these reasons, the Government must view the construction industry as a priority sector during its Brexit negotiations. We may not import and export as many products and services as other sectors but we do rely heavily on migrant workers from the EU. That is why the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) is bringing together other leading construction umbrella groups and trade bodies to develop some clear recommendations to the Government regarding what our sector wants from a post-Brexit immigration system. The single biggest concern for the construction industry is that we will not have access to a sufficient number of migrant workers once we have left the EU. Although it is reassuring to know that the Government is likely to bring in a short- to medium-term transition period in terms of its immigration policy, while we wean ourselves off the free movement of people, the fact remains that the UK is almost at full employment. The truth is that sectors like construction will always need a significant number of migrant workers because there are simply not enough UK-based workers to fill these positions.
Having said that, there is room for improvement in terms of the construction sector’s willingness and ability to train the next generation of UK workers. We can and should do more to attract new entrants into the industry and ensure we provide them with broad skills that will stand them in good stead even through periods of economic downturn. We are not very good at selling ourselves to teachers, parents and young people which is surprising given the wonderful array of careers that can be pursued in our industry. A young person can choose to forgo university, and the costly associated tuition fees, and instead take up an apprenticeship during which they will earn while they learn. The most important thing here is that these apprenticeships are of a high quality – this is a mantra that all political parties now seem to support and it is our hope that the whole industry gets behind the need for broader and higher-skilled individuals. Then and only then will we attract and retain the right calibre of people.