As the UK construction industry looks to reshape workforces for a post-Brexit world, can automation help to fill the gap?

16 March 2018

I recently attended a fascinating dinner with senior executives from several leading UK construction firms. Amid the lively buzz of conversation around the table, one topic came consistently to the fore; the potential impact of Brexit on the industry’s workforce.

It isn’t hard to see why my fellow diners were concerned. Everyday experience confirms the relatively high numbers of EU nationals working on building sites across the UK. The scale of the potential challenge was starkly illustrated in a research study that PwC has conducted jointly with London First.

The report – “Facing Facts: The impact of migrants on London, its workforce and its economy” – examined the origins of the workforce in key industries. As the chart shows, we found that the proportion of people from post-2004 EU accession countries working in London’s construction sector was higher than in any other comparable industry.



This tendency isn’t limited to London, with construction operations outside the capital also employing relatively high levels of EU nationals. What’s more, Brexit is approaching at a time when the industry is already facing a human resources crunch. In 2017 the Construction Industry Training Board estimated that the sector across the UK will need a quarter of a million workers in the coming two years, with 45,000 vacancies coming up each year.

So, whatever impact Brexit has on individual mobility, UK construction firms face a growing squeeze on skills in the coming years. Hardly surprising then that the UK construction industry was one of the first sectors to voice its alarm over the potential ending of free movement of EU nationals into the UK post-Brexit.

Fortunately, in late February these concerns were allayed to some extent by the Government’s announcement that EU migrants who arrive in the UK during the transition period will be able to stay permanently. That said, there’s uncertainty over what happens beyond that.

Irrespective of what happens with Brexit, meeting the industry’s skills needs in the coming years will be a challenge – and adjusting to the new employment landscape will take time. The attendees at my dinner were fully aware of these realities, and an interesting sub-theme that emerged during the discussion was whether new automation technologies could help them fill the gap.

Certainly, making more use of automation has been mentioned by several companies as a key part of their future workforce planning. And again, it isn’t difficult to see why.

On a recent visit to a client site, I was shown an architectural model of a major new urban development the company was working on. Buildings, open spaces, street furniture, trees, people, transport links – all the elements of the completed project were depicted in minute detail. And the entire model had been 3D-printed from a digital design.

This is just one example of the labour-saving potential of automation – which goes far beyond the obvious potential to 3D-print bricks. In China, a two-storey, 4,000-square-feet villa has been 3D-printed that’s robust enough to withstand an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale. In Madrid, the world’s first 3D-printed pedestrian bridge was opened in December 2016 and 3D-printing is just one aspect of the technology transformation that’s underway in the industry.

Forward-looking construction companies across the world are harnessing the power of Industry 4.0 – the fusion of the Internet of Things with industrial processes and supply chains – to transform themselves into digital enterprises, and realise benefits around efficiency, costs and revenues.The message is clear. As Brexit draws nearer, UK construction companies need to explore the opportunities that automation presents to help manage their need for people. Look out for future blogs on automation, exploring what these opportunities may be.



Julia Onslow-Cole  |   Partner, Legal Markets Leader and Head of Global Immigration,
Email  |  +44) 2078047252