AGENDA: There's Room for All to Build Future for Britain; the Growing Skills Gap in the Construction Industry Is Threatening the Government's Ambitious Development Targets over the Coming Years - and Migrant Labour Is Not the Long Term Answer, Says Marcus Higgins, Construction Director for Solihull-Based G&C Finance
Byline: Marcus Higgins
The recent influx migration into the UK of our Eastern European neighbours has been a good thing. Or a bad thing.
I suppose it depends on who you talk to. The Confederation of British Industry and the Government are adamant that recent migration has helped the UK economy continue to grow in these challenging economic times.
Economic migrants fill job vacancies that the indigenous market is unable or unwilling to fill and their taxes pay for public services and pensions long after they may have returned to their homelands.
Groups like Migration watch UK have a different point of view. It believes the economic benefits of the recent explosion in migration to the population as a whole are being significantly overplayed.
Like the Conservative Party, they also believe that to continue to allow unchecked migration from new EU member states will be a disaster for our public services as well as community cohesion.
One area where there is a perception that economic migration has had a positive effect is in construction.
The past few years have seen an unprecedented amount of development, both residential and commercial, and that almost certainly could not have been done without labour, both skilled and unskilled, from the former Eastern bloc, as well as elsewhere in the world.
And the mass of development work is unlikely to end any time soon. In July this year Gordon Brown promised three million new homes by 2010 and described the need for new homes as a "national priority" to meet population growth.
Throw in the 2012 Olympics, PFI projects, school building initiatives and commercial schemes that are already in the planning pipeline and that is a significant amount of construction.
Thank goodness for the influx of new labour, then? Well in the short term, just possibly, but in the long term, possibly not.
There is no question that construction has been losing its appeal as a career for a number of years - and as the Government continues its drive to see 50 per cent of young people enjoying a university education, this situation is likely to continue.
Not that there aren't roles within construction for the university educated, there are, and lots of them, but why would the professionals of the future decide to study, say, quantity surveying at the age of 18?
Many teenagers will not even know what they do. Instead they are looking for careers in law or medicine or other well remunerated industries well versed in espousing their virtues.
However, the majority of those employed in the construction sector work on site in a variety of roles from nonskilled labourers to highly skilled craftsmen.
It is these workers who will make or break the UK's development plans. But as the UK fast becomes a nation of service providers, manual labour seems to be an increasingly unattractive career option.
So in this respect it would seem that the sector should be grateful for whatever help it can get, whether it comes from Walsall or Warsaw. The reality, though, is somewhat different.
First and foremost, Eastern European labour is cheap or almost certainly cheaper than their UK counterparts so will always be an attractive proposition to developers as margins continue to narrow.
There is nothing new in this; new arrivals establishing themselves in this country have been taking the lowest paid jobs for centuries. …