EU net migration figures back up Total Project Integration’s concerns for the UK workforce
Prior to the 2016 referendum on EU membership, net migration from the bloc was at a 219,000 peak. Since the British electorate made the decision to leave, this number has been in steady decline. It is now at its lowest level since 2003, less than a quarter of the 2015 high.
The decline has been driven by reduced EU arrivals for work purposes. Official figures from the Office for National Statistics [ONS] show net migration from the EU was at 48,000 in the year to June, after 151,000 EU citizens left the UK and 199,000 arrived in the country.
Meanwhile, migration from outside the EU has been on the rise over the last six years and this trend has withstood EU referendum, with the non-EU net migration figure standing at 229,000, buoyed by an increase in non-EU citizens coming to study.
The figures point to a falling migrant labour workforce from Europe, with one consultancy firm worried that this could intensify when the UK leaves the single market.
Total Project Integration is a 35-year-old project and cost management consultancy firm from Surrey, which serves public and private clients spanning the residential, commercial, regeneration, infrastructure and education construction sectors up and down the country.
Managing director Jane Hewitt has been at the helm of the business for a decade, overseeing turnover growth of 300 per cent in that period. She expressed concerns ahead of Brexit that leaving the European single market could see eight per cent of the current workforce lost, and the recent EU migration statistics support her assertion.
Hewitt told The Parliamentary Review: “A growing concern for the business remains the possibility of a loss of a further 200,000 EU workers as a direct result of leaving the single market – eight per cent of the current workforce.
“This will come in addition to the 60,000 that have already migrated to projects in mainland Europe.”
Hewitt highlighted for the need for the industry to adapt in order to avoid having to rely on a migrant labour workforce, adding that the government had to take responsibility for mitigating the problem.
Indeed, Hewitt’s views are also supported by an employment lawyer advising companies on compliance with the UK’s Modern Slavery Act.
Chris Syder, who works for Penningtons Manches Cooper, acknowledges that foreign labour is prevalent, particularly among European workers who can easily enter the UK and take up work under existing freedom of movement rules, but equally so is exploitation of such workers, and it is being done to prop up the construction industry.
Syder told the BBC: “The UK's construction sector has always been high risk due to its low profit margins and consequential need for cheap labour - and the exploitation of labour, particularly migrant labour, is often hidden in plain sight.”
Fighting exploitation of foreign workers has been left in the hands of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority [GLAA] to deal with. Yet, despite the concerns of Syder and Hewitt, and the latter’s view that the sector should move away from relying on migrant labour along with government mitigation, little action at political level has been taken.
According to their election manifesto for December 12, the Conservatives are still pressing ahead with plans to end freedom of movement and introduce an Australian style points-based system of entry should they be re-elected.
However, doing so and putting a definite end to freedom of movement would only exacerbate the industry’s woes according to Hewitt.
She said: “We believe that the lack of free movement of labour would have a detrimental effect on the government’s ability to deliver their commitment to national infrastructure housing development, unless the skills gap is bridged through targeted training and development of the existing workforce.”
Issues surrounding the skills gap and the failings of measures to attempt to close it, such as the apprenticeship levy, are very well-documented, suggesting that more work on this issue must be done in order to compensate for a falling foreign workforce.
With government mitigation not forthcoming and the availability of skilled workers falling, exacerbated by a falling migrant workforce, the industry has been forced to take measures. Total Project Integration is no different in this regard.
Hewitt explained: “Skills shortages within the UK construction industry have been well publicised. As a result, diminishing service quality and pressure on reliable supply chains have hiked up prices and driven up fees.
“The availability of skilled workers has been steadily moving downwards since the last recession. Redundant staff sought alternative employment due to a lack of opportunities within construction and shifted to sectors which promoted greater financial stability. These are the same individuals who would have otherwise passed their knowledge down to the next generation.”
Hewitt believes that thorough government action is needed in the form of a full industry review.
“I believe a full industry review is required. The solutions proposed by various stakeholders from training providers to professional governing bodies maintain that the only way forward is a truly collaborative approach across the sector.”
However, Hewitt has also ensured that her firm is taking measures of its own for the benefit of the sector.
Elaborating on this, Hewitt explained: “To cope with an industry-wide skills shortage, we have a Total Project Integration academy, which sponsors our younger employees through formal professional training and also pairs them up with a senior mentor. They then work closely to jointly roll out projects while the mentor oversees the day-to-day activity of younger employees and helps them to develop their project-specific skills.
“We provide opportunities for lifelong development, by way of developing coaching and mentoring skills to provide greater satisfaction at work by sharing hard-earned expertise.”
In contrast to the Conservative policy on immigration at a political level, the two leading opposition parties have both made commitments to prolong freedom of movement in their election manifestos.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has signalled his preference to include free movement as part of negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and EU, as well as favouring close alignment with the single market and customs union.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats intend to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit entirely, seeing the UK remain an EU member and continue adhering to its regulations, including free movement.
The route forward for the construction industry and how the UK workforce will be impacted will only become clear with the outcome of the general election. However, the warning from Hewitt and from the industry is clear, in that there is a need for action to be taken in order to close the skills gap, but it will be even more crucial if freedom of movement is to be compromised, in order to avoid the sector being hamstrung by the consequential decline in the workforce.