'A ticking time bomb': Housebuilders need people more than they need land

  • The Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors has warned of a growing skills gap which some believe could decimate the UK construction industry
  • 62% of surveyors now believe the problem is hampering growth.
  • The gap has grown due to an ageing population, and will grow further once Britain leaves the European Union.

LONDON — Labour shortages are growing in the UK’s vital construction industry, according to the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors.

A survey from RICS found skills shortages are holding back the sector, with 62% of surveyors citing it as an impediment to growth. That figure is up from 40% in 2012 when RICS began its quarterly UK Construction and Infrastructure Market Survey.

RICS said “respondents continue to highlight Brexit-related uncertainties as weighing on investment decisions and the lack of sufficiently skilled workers also remains an obstacle for many businesses.”

The labour figures are stark. An ageing population and a lack of new skilled workers to the sector mean the industry faces a “ticking time bomb” of labour shortages, according to a recent report from construction consultant Mark Farmer.

Charts featured in the report, which was titled “Modernise or Die,” demonstrate the chronic shortage of workers compared to the amount required to keep Britain’s construction industry afloat:

Brexit-related uncertainty

Farmer calculated in 2015 that the industry needed 700,000 new workers simply to replace those retiring or moving to other industries, and a further 120,000 to deliver capacity growth in the sector.

That was before the UK voted to leave the European Union, and the the government’s promise to cut immigration significantly, which carries its own threat to construction: around 45% of the UK’s 270,653 migrant construction workers are from EU countries.

Some builders employ significantly more EU workers than that: Tony Pidgley, chairman of housebuilder Berkeley Homes, said last year that 50% of his subcontractors are from Eastern Europe, and warned Brexit would cause “even more pressure in terms of skills shortages.”

“If you ask any housebuilder what their main challenge is, they say it’s labour availability,” he said.

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