A construction worker wearing a hard hat, gloves and an orange high-vis jacket measuring timber.

Construction Labour Market in the UK is in Crisis

The construction industry serves as a vital indicator of a successful economy. In the UK, circumstances rooted in the 1982 Industrial Training Act have collided, creating a perfect storm of labour market shortages whose effects are likely to be felt well beyond the construction sector. The successful revitalisation of the stagnating UK economy will rely partly on construction focussed in and around the country’s second cities, Birmingham and Manchester, according to Resolution Foundation’s Economy 2030 report. If the Labour Party is successful in gaining a majority in the UK Commons at the next general election, which is looking increasingly likely, they are going to need all the brain-power they can muster to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by an increasingly fragile construction sector, to secure economic growth. 

A complex landscape 

Construction labour force problems are complex, and whilst it’s tempting to blame Brexit for worker shortages, the reality is more nuanced. The foundation of a strong workforce lies in high-quality training and good working conditions. The UK construction industry has neither and, as a result, the outlook for young people and adults wanting to train and enter the sector is bleak. 

Construction training in crisis

Construction training in colleges is on its knees through no fault of its own. In its 2022 Education Funding Report the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that further education colleges, which provide the lion’s share of construction training to 16-19-year-olds, have fared worst out of all education institutions, experiencing real-term financial cuts of 14% between 2010 and 2020. These cuts filter into every subject, undermining quality, impacting teacher morale and creating crises in recruitment. Where apprenticeships are concerned, the latest data show that apprentice success in construction roles fell by 20% between 2018/19 and 2020/21, with the largest fall happening pre-COVID, suggesting that the pandemic was merely the final nail in the construction apprenticeship coffin. At the same time, the number of adult apprentices has declined by 27% since 2016. This decline across every single mode of training and age group is indicative of the slow and steady decline in human resource, which is the crux of a healthy home-grown construction industry. 

Demographic differences

The sector’s reliance on the skills and commitment of older workers is an issue. When the pandemic witnessed an outpouring of labour into easier, more comfortable and safer jobs, very little thought was given to what would happen if these workers didn’t come back. They didn’t come back; some remained in alternative jobs, some became long-term sick and some took early retirement, indicative of other major obstacles facing the UK government – the ageing workforce and the increase in those registered as long-term sick. Coupled with the changing preferences of younger workers who tend to prioritise well-being and are less likely to tolerate substandard working conditions, the exodus of older skilled workers is a multi-faceted problem for the sector. 

The image of construction

What’s more, construction has an image problem. The industry survives on a diet of sole traders working in harsh, sometimes unsafe, conditions, nailed down to the last penny by companies big and small. A bastion of hyper-masculinity, the sector is renowned for its sexism, with a whopping seven in ten women in the field reporting sexism and workplace discrimination according to Randstad. It is a sector deconstructed in classic neoliberal style with all the risk offloaded onto vulnerable self-employed workers, and now, without the glue of older and more experienced workers holding it together, it’s falling apart at the seams. Few industries have seen such negative impacts of the dismantling of traditional labour structures, because most other industries that can take advantage of a more flexible workforce, such as hospitality or logistics, do not need the same quantity of advanced technical skills required in construction.  

‘construction has an image problem’

Brexit and construction 

Although numbers are not clear, due to the self-employed and often transient nature of construction labour, Brexit has had a definable impact on the availability of suitably qualified, experienced and skilled workers in the building industry. Almost a quarter of construction firms are reliant on migrant workers (CITB, 2023), and there is no doubt that exiting the EU resulted in valued construction workers leaving the UK for good. Against a backdrop of anti-foreign rhetoric and amidst a sea of red tape and an increased cost of living, the appeal of travelling to the UK to work long hours in a low-status, hard-graft industry has diminished since Brexit. 

Labour shortfall

At the same time, demand for building services surged during and after the pandemic, as middle-income earners, stranded at home, turned their focus from holidays to home extensions. This buoyant construction demand hasn’t waned, and if the Resolution Foundation’s recommendations are heeded, are unlikely to in the short to medium term. The CITB, which is responsible for ensuring that the industry has a diverse and skilled workforce, agrees, stating that nearly a quarter of a million additional construction workers will be needed in the next two years. With apprenticeships producing fewer than 12,000 additional qualified construction workers each year, the country will be 200,000 workers short of projected labour demand, which could have a dramatic impact on much-needed growth. 

Construction industry transformation

The question of what can be done to allay these complex problems is complicated. The industry embodies structural problems, which will only be alleviated with concerted effort and authentic reflection from all stakeholders – government, businesses large and small, industry bodies and workers. Leaving the industry and UK workers to solve the problem alone clearly isn’t working. The UK Government needs to muster the political will to take decisive and creative policy action to tackle training challenges. It has gone some way to acknowledging the impending crisis by naming construction trades as those in shortest supply. Of thirty-eight jobs on the official UK skilled worker shortage occupation list, more than a third are connected to the construction industry, with architects, five construction trades and seven engineering professions listed as shortage occupations, attracting preferential visa conditions for overseas workers. For employers, however, skilled worker visas are not a golden bullet, with recruitment of foreign workers costing thousands. This policy, nestled in the ‘grow-your-own’ ideology which favours British workers, can only work if the country is actually growing its own. Which it isn’t. 

A construction PR drive

The industry as a whole, spearheaded by businesses big and small, needs to embark on a charm offensive underpinned by a wholesale shift in culture that casts off macho culture and instead places diversity, respect, flexibility, job security and better working conditions at its heart. Simultaneously, the CITB needs to take a long look at itself and its focus. With a multi-layered workforce crisis in full flow, its focus must pivot away from employers being in the driving seat towards the needs of workers if there is to be any chance of success. The industry is a fragmented jigsaw in need of unionisation. If UK workers can learn anything from international affairs in 2023, it is that working together through unionisation can work. The powerful solidarity shown within and outside of the writers’ unions in the US demonstrates the remarkable capacity of people to support each other in their times of need to secure better pay, conditions and industry progress. The CITB should be a figurehead in this movement to make construction better for workers so that it works for everyone. 

The construction crossroads

The construction industry is at a crossroads.  Brexit, an ageing workforce and demographic changes have compounded the pre-existing historic challenges, chronic neglect of training and deeply embedded cultural norms which deter diverse candidates from joining and staying in the sector. Urgent and decisive action is needed, to address the structural deficiencies and transform the industry into a fit-for-purpose machine which can support economic growth and help reduce inequalities. The CITB as a central organising body must be at the heart of this movement, inspiring collective efforts to build a better future for workers and, ultimately, for the UK economy.


References

CITB (2023). Migration and UK Construction

Institute for Fiscal Studies (2022). Education Spending report

https://ifs.org.uk/publications/annual-report-education-spending-england-2022 

UK Government (2023).

Randstad (2020). Women in Construction in 2020 Report

RICS (2023). Insights


Photo by Jeriden Villegas on Unsplash

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