We cannot let the pandemic lay waste to our workforce

4 min read

You don’t need me to tell you that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the construction industry has been hugely significant and long-lasting.

With sites shut down entirely for weeks and a return to full productivity and output still out of reach for most contractors, it is perhaps sadly inevitable that many companies have had to make redundancies to ensure they can continue to operate sustainably.

Across the industry, companies are working extremely hard to ensure that they can retain as many jobs as possible. However, as the economic impact of the pandemic continues to bite, the reality is that we face many more job losses across the sector, particularly as the furlough scheme begins to taper.

Alongside the human cost of this – and we should never lose sight of the difficulties and heartache caused by every single job lost – this means that we risk losing critical capacity and expertise at the time we need it most. Our national economic recovery relies on the construction sector. We could face thousands of further job losses over the next few months, and if that happens we will struggle to deliver the ‘shovel-ready’ projects that the Government is promoting as key to our recovery.

The construction sector is already beset by a lack of skilled people and an ageing demographic. If the pandemic causes us to lose a significant share of our capacity and capabilities the reality is that it will be very hard for us recover.

This problem becomes particularly acute as you consider the amount of UK construction labour that comes from immigration. If employment here is not secure, then we are likely to see many people who will be travelling home over the summer decide not to return. With quarantines still in place across much of the world labour will be more immobile than ever.

That’s why the Talent Retention Scheme (TRS) – announced as part of the Chancellor’s statement and launched last week – is such a welcome development. We know that the construction workload is going to be flexible, and that the worst outcome for everyone is that people are forced out of the sector because they can’t be re-deployed fast enough.

The scheme, led by the Construction Leadership Council and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and promoted by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), is an online portal that supports the redeployment of staff at risk of redundancy across the sector. Funded by BEIS, it is a direct response to the Prime Minister’s ambitions to ‘build, build, build’. With social distancing and quarantine measures making the outlook uncertain for migrant labour, the TRS gives us a lifeline through the crisis.

The TRS will provide us with flexibility to ‘loan’ workers in the sector, protecting long-term employment, as well as creating a hub where construction businesses can quickly source people for new projects and for candidates to seek out new roles. If we are to keep talent within the sector we must have an easy mechanism that provides mobility – and the TRS will hopefully provide that.

As well as a critical lifeline for the sector, the TRS also reflects a big step forward in the relationship between the Government and the sector. Over the last four months, the Construction Leadership Council and our trade bodies have worked closer together with each other and the Government than ever before. Without that collaboration it would have been very difficult for us to quickly make the case that the sector would benefit from its own custom solution for skills mobility – but now we are much better equipped to collectively outline our needs and we can now be confident that Government is listening.

Nothing can insulate the construction industry entirely from the economic challenges we face over the next few years. There is little doubt that many will be facing difficult decisions and tough choices. The next six months will define our future success and prosperity, both as an industry and the wider national economy. A critical element of that will be retaining the capacity we need to build back better – and the TRS will have a vital role to play in that effort.

The TRS is now live here and at Mace we’re already using it to source some of the skills we need. I would encourage everyone in the sector – from consultants and specialists to Tier One contractors – to register today.