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Feature Migration

>considerably that any attempt to rein it

back would harm the economy as a whole: “It would restrict the construction industry’s ability to grow, hamper innovation and reduce the talent pool of trades and professionals available to the industry. The UK would also lose out on an opportunity to benefit from any fresh ideas migrants frequently bring from their home countries,” the report says.

Training boost for UK nationals But at the same time as keeping the door open to overseas talent, the report emphasises that more must be done to promote career pathways for UK nationals, saying: “Industry and government should look with urgency at boosting support for training, mentoring and developing young UK citizens as the most effective way to moderate the inflow of migrant workers into the construction sector.” Encouragingly, recent initiatives have

shown that the industry is stepping up action to reach out both to the younger generation and those who left after the 2008 market crash, when it’s estimated around 10% of the labour force exited the industry. Turner says the HBF has launched a new website designed to guide school and college students into long-term careers, and a new CITB-funded initiative to retrain potential returners. Meanwhile, Persimmon and Lend Lease have set out to recruit increasing numbers leaving the armed services. “The construction workforce is a

transient one – just as UK brickies used to go to Germany, or Irish people came across in the 1900s. It’s always been that way,” Turner comments. “So yes, employing more people from abroad is a short-term solution, but we’re also looking to attract people back in the medium term, and in the longer term training more young people so we have a more sustainable workforce for the longer term.” As he says, the two issues – the

industry’s foreign migrant workforce and low numbers of young UK citizens flowing into the industry – are inextricably linked. But in addition, they both trace their origins to the structure of the industry, explains Stuart Green, professor of construction management at the University of Reading. When Tier 1s routinely subcontract 80% of their work to sub-tiers of suppliers working on tight


margins, that means less capacity to train the rising generation. And with fewer UK-born trained site workers, there’s more likelihood that the labour agency at the bottom of the chain will choose to hire site-ready plasterers or dryliners or electricians from overseas. “Construction is volatile, regional, seasonal and has extreme sensitivity to the economic cycle. Manpower planning, particularly when tendering for work is notoriously difficult,” he says. “So the industry in the UK has adopted a particular response to this turbulence, which is different from Denmark or Germany or the Netherlands, to retaining a competitive model resting on flexibility in the face of volatile demand. They don’t want to carry overheads they can’t sustain.” But, as Green says, if you look at that supply chain from the perspective of a low-skilled foreign labourer, then you see an “accessible” structure where you can fairly easily set yourself up as a self- employed subcontractor, or hire yourself to an agency umbrella, and find work on a professionally run project. On the other hand, that same “accessible”

structure is likely to offer limited prospects via training and promotion. “Frank Lampl turned up [from Prague in 1968 to visit his son] and ended up becoming chairman of Bovis. But those opportunities now aren’t there – you could end up working as a Tier 5 agency worker, and just not find a route through the system.”

As he describes, the supply chain is tuned to short-term flexibility, self- employment and only a patchy commitment to training the future generation. “It’s developed over several decades in the context of a neoliberal economy and subsequent government policies,” says Green. “But when it becomes the dominant mindset, it’s very difficult for individual firms to buck the trend – because when you bid, you’ll get undercut by someone else.” There are of course other ways to

structure a construction industry – Green points to Germany and Scandinavia, where subcontracting rates are far lower and there is “more of a collective commitment between the unions and management on productivity improvements”. But there are also other nations that are aligned with the UK’s subcontracting and self- employment model – and they experience similar skills shortages and dilemmas.

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