Even under the terms of a ‘soft’ Brexit, whereby Britain leaves the EU but continues to accept its legislation on the free movement of people, the industry could miss out on about 135,000 workers by 2020, the firm said.
According to Arcadis, under a controlled migration system, EU nationals leaving the industry will not be able to be replaced at the same rate by new EU workers, meaning the workforce would fall at the rate of attrition.
Meanwhile, in a softer scenario where quotas are introduced or policies implemented on a sector-by-sector basis allowing for a degree of EU migration into the sector, Arcadis still estimates far fewer workers would relocate to British construction.
It warned the shortage of workers would hit the industry at a time when it is already facing a skills gap and threatened to delay the construction of much needed homes and transport networks.
Director of workforce planning James Bryce said: “What started as a skills gap could soon become a skills gulf. The British construction sector has been built on overseas labour for generations, and restrictions of any sort – be it hard or soft Brexit – will hit the industry.
“Missing out on over 200,000 people entering the workforce could mean rising costs for business, and much needed homes and transport networks being delayed.”
Earlier this month, professional body the Society of Mortgage Professionals (SMP) also warned of a “shortage of vital labour” in the house-building market post-Brexit.
The organisation estimated as many as 12% of UK construction workers came from other EU countries.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Master Builders claimed almost two thirds of smaller builders were struggling to find bricklayers and more than half were finding it hard to source enough carpenters and joiners.
Drop in homegrown workforce
Bryce blamed what he called a “massive push towards tertiary education” for the drop in the number of British people with the specific skills the construction sector needs.
“If we cannot import the right people, we will need to quickly ramp up training and change the way we build,” he said.
He called on the industry to turn its attention to robotics and off-site manufacturing as well as better training in schools. In the short-term retraining and turning to the unemployed and underemployed could also be a “significant benefit”, he said.
Indeed, new training facilities have already been brought to market. Online lender LendInvest, for instance, launched a property development training course in November, and was forced to add an extra course after its event was eight times oversubscribed.
The problem with construction, Bryce said, was it was a margin-sensitive industry, which could not afford steep hikes in labour costs.
“Controlling post-Brexit labour and resource costs will prove critical if we are to ensure housebuilding and infrastructure projects remain viable,” he said.
However, he warned regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, restricting EU migration to the UK would “add significantly” to the administrative burden associated with satisfying visa requirements.
“This will both slow the recruitment process and increase costs for construction employers, potentially seeing further lags in building the homes and infrastructure the UK needs,” he said.
Arcadis based its calculations on an assumed 2016 infrastructure and housebuilding workforce of 1.5 million and a counter scenario, which assumes the Brexit referendum never happened. Research for the report was conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research.