Post-Brexit Immigration: Building a Brighter Future in the UK?

The current uncertainty surrounding the post Brexit immigration system is of particular concern for employers in the construction industry.

Current statistics suggest that over 10% of workers in the UK's construction industry are from other EU countries (a figure rising to 33% in London). As the haze surrounding what Brexit might mean for the UK immigration system starts to clear, there is a growing concern that immigration restrictions following Brexit could cause significant repercussions within the construction industry and lead to a skills shortage.

Currently lower-skilled roles can be filled by EU workers relocating to the UK by exercising their rights of free movement. This is an almost unrestricted right to enter the UK and find employment in the individual's industry of choice.

The government has recently announced, however, that EU citizens will no longer be given priority to live and work in Britain after Brexit. The terms of the final deal with the EU could include some mobility concessions, but any such concessions would be entirely within the control of the British government.

Instead, EU citizens will be treated in the same way as non-EU citizens wishing to work in the UK under the UK's points-based immigration system (PBS). Under the PBS, employers must apply for a Sponsor Licence in order to sponsor non-EU workers and follow stringent Home Office rules before they can recruit a non EU national. The role to be filled by the migrant worker must be skilled to at least degree level and the salary must be at least £30,000, sometimes higher.

Applying the PBS requirements to EU workers would mean that only the highest skilled workers would be able to gain employment in the UK. The knock on effect could be a skills gap in industries where the UK relies heavily on lower-skilled workers from the EU, such as the care, domestic, and construction industries.

There is already a recognised skills gap and an ageing workforce within the British construction industry; it is predicted that such workforce will decrease by 20-25% over the next ten years. The loss of free movement of construction workers into the UK and concurrent lack of available labour therefore has significant potential to increase project costs, delay the delivery and impact the quality of current major infrastructure projects, as well as to prevent major projects from getting off the ground.

However, it's not all doom and gloom! Recent CITB studies show that over half of non-UK construction workers (56%) would like to remain in the UK until retirement. Depending on the position with EU nationals remaining in the UK post Brexit, it is unlikely that there will be a sudden loss of workers, but rather a window in which employers can consider how to plug a future skills gap without as many EU workers coming in to the country.

There are practical steps that employers can take now to plan for the future. Employers can consider encouraging apprenticeships, to get more British nationals interested in and able to access careers in construction. It is also important to work towards removing industry preconceptions, for example that construction is male-oriented, to ensure that the possible pool of workers in the UK is as wide as possible.

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