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No post-Brexit workforce concerns for steel

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News that two steel construction related sites have been longlisted as potential assembly centres, or logistics hubs, for the construction of Heathrow airport’s expansion (see News) highlights a key factor about the sector that could become even more important in a post-Brexit world.

The British Steel site at Scunthorpe and a Severfield site at Dalton Airfield, near Thirsk, are a long way from Heathrow and the fact that they have been longlisted is recognition of the major benefits that can be gained by the offsite manufacturing processes that steel construction has always led on.

Steelwork contractors are based at fabrication workshops the length and breadth of the UK, mostly away from the employment hotspots where attracting and retaining skilled workers can be difficult. Attracting enough skilled labour looks like it could become a drag on the construction sector in coming years, but one that the steel sector looks well placed to manage.

The issues around labour availability could very well be exacerbated by Brexit which, although it is fast approaching, still has many questions unanswered about the process for EU citizens to remain in the UK, as well as questions about the future movement of labour and immigration requirements.

Some 10 per cent of the UK construction workforce is from the EU, but this percentage is significantly higher in some areas. In London over 30 per cent of construction workers are from the EU. This reliance on EU labour makes the construction industry particularly vulnerable to Brexit.

Construction employers are already reporting issues with recruitment of workers because of Brexit. Recent official figures show that more EU nationals are leaving the UK than at any time since 2008 and there are also fewer EU nationals arriving in the UK compared to the peak in 2016.

Whether this trend continues will largely depend on the extent to which free movement is maintained following Brexit.  Also important will be the perception that EU workers have of being able to find jobs and live here. 

Steelwork contractors have always proudly boasted of the skills of their mostly locally recruited, highly trained, specialist workforces. Suitably skilled and experienced EU nationals have always been welcome to work in the sector on the same terms and conditions as local workers, but the fact is that, for the most part, the steel construction sector has not come to rely to a large extent on EU nationals to man its fabrication workshops or site erection teams.

It is a stable workforce compared to the often itinerant site-based construction workforce, with all the beneficial impacts that has on family life as well as on the quality of the sector’s products.

Whatever the post-Brexit requirements are for EU construction workers, who will remain an invaluable source of skills, the steel construction sector is confident of being able to continue to recruit and retain the workforce needed to meet the needs of its customers in the post-Brexit world.

Nick Barret – Editor

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