Before the industrial revolution and indeed, well into the twentieth century, the British establishment frowned upon ‘trades’. This was because the old class system worked on the basis of the landed gentry shying away from commercial activity in favour of country pursuits and elegant idleness.
In the nineteenth century industrialisation and urbanisation fostered the emergence of a new middle class consisting of those engaged in business, engineering, manufacturing and a proliferation of new trades. Whereas the aristocracy and political elite supported the idea of economic growth and development the social status of engineers and tradesfolk remained very much underneath that of the ruling class. In fact, even highly successful, wealthy entrepreneurs were not welcomed in the country homes, corridors of power and upper class watering holes of the period.
This entrenched attitude towards the new productive class even lingers today. There tends still to be a preference for ‘the professions’ (law, accountancy, banking, etc) over industry. It contrasts markedly with other countries (such as the USA, Germany and Italy) where designers, engineers and manufacturers are considered to be on the same level, if not higher, than accountants, barristers and bankers.
The expansion of the British education system in the nineteenth century was, in parallel, more to do with training the middle class for colonial administration rather than industry. Meanwhile a massive workforce was required for the vast Victorian infrastructure projects, notably the new sprawling cities and canals and railways. There was a skills shortage then and it was thanks to the large influx of Irish workers that such projects were completed.
In more recent times the shortage of workers continues, exacerbated by the government focus on university education rather than technical training. In 2014 there were 200,000 GCSE entries for design and technology. This has now plunged to under 120,000. Meanwhile university admissions have been increasing. 25% of UK-domiciled 18 year olds entered university in 2006. This rose to 32% in 2016.
Clearly it is good that young people attend university and obtain degrees. However there has not been equal emphasis by government on apprenticeships and technical training.
A RICS survey in November 2017 confirmed that 62% of surveyors reported recruitment problems in the third quarter of the year. The skills shortage overtook planning and regulation as the second biggest problem in the industry (the biggest problem is lack of access to finance).
It is highly unlikely that the skills shortage can be solved in the short term even if the government changed its policies. The only solution therefore is to repeat the Victorian example and encourage workers and managers from abroad to come and work in the UK.
There has been a fierce debate raging in the UK on the subject of ‘free movement’ of EU nationals and large scale immigration. This has been a significant element in the Brexit debate.
What the UK construction industry needs right now is not necessarily ‘free movement’ or indeed immigrants exclusively from other EU nations. The UK needs to welcome skilled and motivated construction personnel from around the world on a qualified basis. This entails allowing people to reside and work in the UK on the proviso that they are providing the resources we lack. It is a simple matter of common sense.
After all, we know that those who come to the UK to work hard and well will be contributing significantly to our economic growth. Without them we cannot prosecute our construction and infrastructure projects successfully.