Tacking the UK Construction Skills Crisis: Will the Government’s Intervention Suffice?

The UK construction industry will need an extra 217,000 workers by 2025 to meet demand. In an attempt to address the skills crisis, the UK government has revised their Immigration Rules following the 2023 Spring Budget statement. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) evaluated the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) and included five construction occupations, making it easier to sponsor skilled overseas workers. These are as follows:

  • Bricklayers and masons
  • Roofers, roof tilers and slaters
  • Carpenters and joiners
  • Plasterers
  • Construction and building trades.

Workers within these added occupations are eligible for the Skilled Worker visa, benefiting from more favourable immigration arrangements. The expansion of the SOL comes at a time when the construction industry is struggling to meet demand due to a 20% decline in apprenticeship enrolments and an ageing workforce, with a third of workers aged over 50.

The Skilled Worker (SW) route is the primary route for skilled workers into the UK. Despite this, construction made up just 1% of SW visa applications in 2021. The majority of visa applications for construction were for carpenters, joiners, bricklayers and masons. As construction jobs make up 6% of all workforce jobs in the UK, this shows that the SW route is being used less than expected in the construction industry.

Despite the government’s efforts to tackle the skills shortage, there are various factors that could limit the effectiveness of these changes. Much depends on the success of the sponsorship process, businesses’ ability to navigate the immigration system, and the willingness of skilled workers to relocate to the UK. Additionally, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the construction industry has exacerbated the skills crisis, leading to an increased demand for skilled workers.

Smaller businesses, in particular, may struggle to understand and comply with immigration requirements. While larger companies with dedicated HR or legal teams may be better equipped to handle the complexities of the system, smaller firms could find the process daunting, costly, and time-consuming. 

The UK has the potential to draw skilled construction workers due to our job opportunities, competitive wages, and relatively high quality of life. However, there is strong competition from other appealing destinations like the United States, Canada, Australia, and Germany, which also boast strong construction industries, competitive wages, and high living standards. The lack of affordable housing, and the ongoing cost of living crisis, could also be contributing to making the UK less attractive to skilled workers.

To make matters worse, Brexit has created uncertainty for EU nationals living and working in the UK, prompting some skilled workers to reassess their plans to stay in or move to the UK. Moreover, Brexit has affected the perception of the UK as a welcoming destination for foreign talent. Some skilled workers may view the decision to leave the EU as a sign of a less open and inclusive society, which could further impact their decision to remain or relocate to the UK.

While the UK government’s recent intervention to modify Immigration Rules offers a promising step towards addressing the skills shortage in the construction sector, its long-term effectiveness remains uncertain. The industry’s ability to attract and retain skilled foreign workers, businesses’ capacity to navigate the immigration system, and the perceived openness of the UK to foreign talent are all factors that could affect the outcome. 

Considering these challenges, it is unlikely that the government’s intervention alone will be enough to completely resolve the ongoing skills crisis in construction. Instead, a combination of effective policy changes, continued efforts to develop local skills and training programmes, and fostering a more inclusive environment for skilled workers from abroad will be crucial in tackling the skills shortage in the long run.

Alex Minett is the Head of Product & Markets at CHAS, the UK’s leading health and safety assessment scheme and provider of risk mitigation, compliance, and supply chain management services. With a working history in the audit and management consulting industry, Alex is experienced in implementing visions and strategies. Skilled in negotiation, management and business development, he is passionate about driving CHAS in its mission to safeguard organisations from risk in the UK. 

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