Research highlights extent of migrant worker exodus from UK construction industry


A new CITB report has revealed the number of migrant workers in the UK construction industry fell by 8.3% in 2020.

The Migration in UK Construction 2021 study emphasised the impact on the sector of the number of construction workers who have left the UK since Brexit. Pandemic-related pressures have resulted in even greater numbers leaving, despite increasing demand for staff.

CITB said the research showed  there are 25,000 fewer workers in the sector than in 2019. Over the last three years the number of migrants working in construction has fallen by 15%, from over 326,000 to 280,000 – the equivalent of one in every seven migrant workers leaving the sector.

The research also found that many employers are not engaging with the Points Based Immigration System (PBIS) licence scheme to enable them to hire non-UK born workers, particularly SMEs. Several large and medium sized employers are also concerned that some skilled trades are not accessible through the skilled worker visa including dryliners, asbestos workers and insulators.

Steve Radley, director of policy at CITB, said, “The transition out of the EU and into a new immigration system was always going to be difficult and the pandemic and interrupted supplies of materials has intensified skills and cost pressures. We know that developing homegrown talent will be at the heart of addressing these skills challenges and that government is taking action to grow apprenticeships and to get more college students into construction jobs.

“Employer investment in key skill areas such as apprenticeships is recovering and should improve further in 2022. But for many, their struggle to deliver on the current workloads is hampering their ability to free up time to invest in training just when it’s most needed.”

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), commented, “The fall in the number of construction migrant workers over the last three years is not surprising and helps to explain why many small construction companies have had to turn down jobs because of the lack of available workers. At a time of rising demand in the construction sector it is imperative that more home-grown talent is developed. Unfortunately, this is not an easy fix which is why the building industry will continue to experience an on-going skills problem over many years.”

Suzannah Nichol, chief executive of Build UK, added, “As construction looks to lead the economic recovery, the government is rightly investing in training and re-skilling the UK workforce whilst the industry develops better routes for new entrants. We welcomed the recent commitments in the Autumn Budget to improve skills and recruit talent, but these will all take time to come to fruition and we are being asked to build now, not in 12 months. To ensure the industry can continue to deliver the ambitious programme of infrastructure investment and development, it is vital that we have a Points-Based Immigration System that can respond rapidly to changing pressures, with a clear path for the industry to raise these with government.”

Alasdair Reisner, chief executive of CECA, said, “Our members continue to experience very challenging conditions for recruitment and retention of workers. The likely outcome of this will be that those areas that have historically had higher levels of migrant labour, and generally higher salaries, such as London and the south east, will now pull resource from the rest of the country, exacerbating skills difficulties nationwide.”