Government can’t ignore ‘ticking time bomb’ of construction skills gap


ALMOST half of small builders in the UK want targeted immigration to tackle sector skills shortages, new research has uncovered.

The latest State of Trade Survey from the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) revealed that 48% of FMB members are in favour of the UK Government introducing plans to attract more skilled labour from abroad to help address the ‘chronic’ skills gap in construction.

Just 21% opposed changing immigration rules, while 27% neither supported nor opposed them.

With the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) reporting the need for 53,000 additional workers a year to meet demand, the FMB is now calling for all options to be considered. The survey data also stressed support for any immigration measures to be underpinned by investment in UK-based skills training.

Other major findings from the survey included a fall in workload and employment, and a ‘significant’ drop in enquiries for future work. Small housebuilders in particular have been affected.

As cost-of-living pressures continue to bite, FMB said this new data ‘foreshadows a tricky economic climate’ that the Government has an opportunity to address in the spring budget.

The FMB State of Trade Survey, which is released quarterly, tracks the experience of SME construction firms across the UK. The latest survey for Q4 2022 found:

  • 48% of small, local builders are in favour of the UK Government encouraging increased immigration of skilled labourers, provided this is supported by investment in UK-based training opportunities
  • Workloads and enquiries decreased in Q4 compared to Q3 on balance in all sectors
  • In terms of total enquiries, 41% of FMB members reported a decrease in Q4 compared to Q3, with only 29% saying this had increased
  • Housebuilding activity has fallen 17% from 1% to -18% compared to Q3. Reported enquiries for new housebuilding projects have dropped 11% from -8% to -19%
  • 15% of FMB members reported an increase in the number of employees within their workforce, with 19% saying it had decreased
  • Around a third of FMB members are struggling to recruit carpenters/joiners, bricklayers and general labourers
  • 89% of FMB members reported an increase in material costs
  • 85% of respondents expect material costs to increase in Q1 2023
  • 70% of builders have put up their prices for work

Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB, said, “The growing skills gap in the construction sector is a ticking time bomb that the Government can’t afford to ignore. Whether that’s looking again at targeted immigration measures, supported by half of builders in the latest FMB State of Trade Survey, or using the spring budget to bring forward a comprehensive skills strategy to roadmap how we fill the gaps and train at scale, it’s time to act.

“This quarter’s FMB State of Trade data shows some potentially worrying signs for every part of the construction sector with workloads and enquiries down significantly. Ambitious plans are needed to get small, local builders motoring.

“A first step is the need to unblock the planning system to get more homes built. There is also an urgent need to invest in greening our homes, with a long-term plan towards retrofitting the existing housing stock. This move would give construction businesses the certainty they need to invest.”