For a straightforward home renovation in Brighton on England’s south coast, builder and architect Phil Wish had to dredge a plumber out of sick leave, press gang his brother-in-law into labouring and do the wiring himself.
His predicament speaks to the strains on the construction sector in the wake of Brexit and the exodus of European workers that has taken place during the Covid pandemic.
Builders and developers across the UK warn of an acute shortage of skilled tradespeople, including carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers, that is turning prime minister Boris Johnson’s favourite slogan, “build back better,” into something of a joke in the industry.
Building projects are stalling and wages are rising as a result of the labour squeeze, while costs are rocketing for materials caught up in the wider disruption to global supply chains.
The government’s aim of building 300,000 homes a year looks far from reach without a relaxation of migrant visas and a big domestic training push, according to industry experts.
“I couldn’t find an electrician for love nor money,” said Wish, adding that if he had waited to secure one, his project would have been held up until next year. “You can’t ‘build back better’ without enough builders.”
The dearth of skilled construction workers has been decades in the making, the result of generational shifts away from vocational training and, in Wish’s view, an ingrained snobbery towards the trades: “They’re seen as a last resort for kids who’ve failed to get into university.”
The shortfalls have been compounded by the pandemic, which saw a transient workforce rooted to the spot during successive lockdowns, while tens of thousands of skilled workers who had made Britain their home, mostly from eastern Europe, were leaving.
Meanwhile, Brexit and the end of free movement of people between the UK and Europe has exposed how dependent Britain’s construction sector had become on that migrant labour to plug the gaps.
“We have come off a cliff edge,” said Jerry Swain, national officer for construction at Unite the Union. “The industry has relied on foreign labour. It takes at least two years to make a decent bricklayer or carpenter. So now there is a limited pool to draw from.”
In the short term this is good news for workers. Bricklayers are commanding £220 and sometimes more a day, compared with £180 before the crisis, according to Swain. Wages are going up across the board.
The prime minister has argued wage rises are a necessary adjustment on the way to the high-skill, high-wage economy that he says people voted for when they rejected membership of the EU in 2016. But there is a danger that inflationary pressures and the squeeze on labour will instead dampen appetite for new investment.
“For construction workers, it is happy days. It is great they are bringing in more money. But you still need 10 bricklayers and we have got eight. The worry is that the workload then shrinks to fit the reduced labour market,” said Swain.
There is evidence this is already happening. Construction output has fallen each month since April, when it declined by 2 per cent compared with the year before, according to the Office for National Statistics.
In its most recent survey, the Federation of Master Builders, the UK trading association for small and medium-sized building businesses, reported that more than half its members were struggling to find the workers they need, FMB officials said.
Adrian Swann, a developer in Nottingham in the East Midlands, said work on a 16-house compound in the suburb of Wollaton has been stalled for months. “There is healthy demand in the area [for houses]. But we can’t tell clients when they can look at them or reserve off plan because we can’t guarantee the start date.”
Phil Stillwell, who runs a depot of Covers Timber and Builders Merchants outside Lewes in East Sussex, said timber prices were stabilising after nearly doubling in a year, but big increases in other materials were on the way.
“The cement boys are talking about a 20 per cent increase by November. Plasterboards are also going up by a minimum of 12 per cent in January,” he added.
The government has resisted pressure to provide more short-term visas to Europeans to ease the labour shortage. But it is far from sure that workers could be enticed back anyway, said Lloyd Baylis, a structural engineer who runs Charter Projects, a home renovation business, half of whose 35-strong Slovakian team have returned home.
The focus now, he argued, must be on transforming the image of the industry to draw more young British people back into training. Technology could also help, he said, citing new composite bricks that fit together like Lego, and forgo the need for bricklaying skills.
A survey by the Homebuilders Federation found that for every 10,000 new houses, 30,000 new recruits are needed, including about 2,500 bricklayers, 1,000 carpenters, and 300 electricians.
A year ago, the government set up the “Construction Skills Delivery Group”, with the aim of improving existing training. “We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad,” the government said.
But at present, further education colleges are not turning out anywhere near enough graduates with the right skills, said Jenny Hardman, director of the homebuilding skills partnership at the federation. Apprenticeships only provide part of the answer because the vast majority of people in the sector are self-employed.
“What we should have been doing for the last five years is preparing for this day,” she said. “There are 60-70,000 young people who could come into construction every year but they don’t,” she said.
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