Blaming Brexit for labour shortages is a Robocop-out
Rather than lamenting a lack of EU workers after Brexit, construction firms need to start innovating, argues Chris Blythe.
The news that Balfour Beatty has agreed to permanently employ any agency worker who has been on its north west highways contract for more than three months is a significant step forward in creating a fairer working environment.
The threats of labour shortages posed by Brexit are seeing firms beginning to wake up to the need to get people on board, although it seems a bit rich for a chief executive at a UK housebuilding firm to complain that the government has not given guidance about what to do if EU workers leave.
The problem has been too much reliance on EU workers over the years. As another senior executive said: “We won’t get the replacement people from the EU that the construction sector has traditionally relied upon… and with Brexit, we need young UK employees to come into the sector.”
That is without doubt true. A large proportion of the UK skilled construction workforce is close to having a seniors’ bus pass. In the absence of a flood of young people joining our sector the burden is going to fall on the current workforce extending their working life.
That’s easier in an office-based job than a site-based role. So, if the industry wants to extend the working lives of its skilled people to cover for the time it will take to bring younger people up to speed, it needs to come up with ways of making that possible.
Offsite manufacturing is of course the standard response but it’s not enough. I was taken by a recent news article describing the mechanical “exosuits” being used by workers in some of the Ford Motor Company factories.
The “suit” works by wrapping around the upper body and assists when reaching or lifting overhead. It uses passive mechanical assistance, as opposed to a computer-controlled Robocop-type suit. The benefits, including reduced worker injuries and increased satisfaction, are easy to measure.
It’s this sort of innovation that needs to find its way into the construction industry sooner rather than later, and is one way to tackle the Brexit challenges.
This needs a long-term view of course, and in an industry which is notoriously fickle and prone to short termism – hence the special pleading to retain access to cheap skilled EU workers.
When the Society of Builders (the CIOB’s founding name) was formed back in 1834 one of its earliest priorities was to bring in a system of fair pay and conditions for construction workers. The news that Balfour Beatty is ready to permanently employ longstanding agency workers is a step towards fairer working.
Sometimes the past holds clues to the future. Unlike the “exosuit”, not all innovations
have to be new.
Chris Blythe is chief executive of the CIOB