An extra 224,900 workers may be needed between now and 2027 to enable the construction industry to meet demand, according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).
It’s no wonder then, that experts cite labour shortages as one of the main risks for construction companies as we head towards 2024 – and many are already pointing to this as the reason for delayed projects and increased costs.
While the industry is one of the UK's most proactive in finding long-term solutions to recruitment struggles, more immediate responses are needed.
Recognising the economic importance of the sector and its efforts to improve domestic recruitment, the government has acted to ensure employers can rely on immigration: specifically the Skilled Worker route.
The Skilled Worker visa is the primary option taken by employers to recruit overseas. To be eligible, the role must be deemed by the Home Office to typically require a level-three qualification – equivalent to A level – under the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF).
The applicant does not necessarily require a qualification if they have relevant experience. The salary must also be a minimum of £26,200, unless the occupation carries a higher threshold, and the candidate must meet an English language proficiency requirement.
If these basic requirements are fulfilled an individual may be sponsored by a company, which must also hold a sponsor licence granted by the Home Office.
To apply for a such a licence, a business must show that it is operating in the UK by providing specific corporate documents such as evidence of PAYE and VAT registration, a copy of a lease, corporate bank statements or an employer's liability certificate.
It must also complete an online application form, and once this is submitted with the supporting documents a decision should be made within eight weeks. If necessary, there is a priority service to cut the processing time down to two weeks.
Once the sponsor licence is in place, businesses can recruit from overseas. A certificate of sponsorship is issued to the candidate, who can then submit a visa application from their home country. Applications are generally processed within three weeks and, again, options are usually available to expedite.
A key element of applying for and retaining a sponsor licence is being able to comply with ongoing Home Office requirements.
For instance, sponsors need to notify the Home Office within ten working days when there are changes to an employee's work location – which, given the nature of construction work, can be frequent. Company-level changes also need reporting, and strict record-keeping requirements must be observed.
At the outset, it's important for companies to consider whether they have the resources in place to ensure compliance, and introduce new processes as needed. The overall cost of sponsorship is, of course, another important consideration.
While the UK's visa fees are among the world's highest, they do vary substantially depending on organisation size and on visa length, which can usually be up to five years.
For example, a large company might pay government fees of around £9,550 to sponsor a steel erector for five years, whereas a small company sponsoring a bricklayer for one year would pay around £1,650.
The Home Office's Shortage Occupation List (SOL) details certain job types that it accepts cannot be filled by resident workers alone.
Its intention is to make it easier for employers with those shortages to recruit overseas workers by:
Earlier this year, the government commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review labour shortages in the industry and consider whether construction roles should be recognised as shortage occupations under the Skilled Worker route.
The MAC concluded that they should, and from 07 August 2023 the following roles were added to the SOL:
Until now the only construction job on the SOL other than a professional engineer was high-integrity pipe-welders, and then only where the employer requires at least three years' experience.
A role does not need to be on the SOL to be eligible for sponsorship. Others that aren't on the SOL such as construction project managers and quantity surveyors would still qualify for Skilled Worker visas, but at the standard salary threshold and without a fee discount.
However, the MAC also looked at the following roles and concluded they should remain ineligible:
As businesses compete for talent from the domestic labour market, a new pipeline is also emerging in the form of displaced talent. There are more than 100m displaced people worldwide, many of whom are highly skilled professionals.
The UK's Displaced Talent Mobility Pilot programme seeks to remove some of the administrative barriers around the sponsorship process, for example by allowing submission of alternative supporting documents.
These applications, made under the Skilled Worker category, benefit from priority processing as default and a dedicated helpdesk.
The programme is spearheaded by Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), a non-profit organisation that helps displaced people safely migrate for work, using their skills to rebuild their lives with dignity and purpose.
The programme has so far placed more than 500 workers in a range of sectors including healthcare, tech and engineering – all areas of critical shortage in the UK.
To help employers identify potential workers, TBB has registered more than 70,000 professionals covering more than 150 occupations, including in-demand roles in construction and engineering.
The initiative is based on the win–win principle of sourcing staff for organisations while also addressing the global refugee crisis. Applicants are given the opportunity to use their professional skills to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and into security.
In turn, employers benefit not only from having a skilled employee but also increasing diversity in experience and perspective.
The Senior or Specialist Worker (Global Business Mobility) visa is another popular sponsorship option for international companies.
Designed to enable senior overseas employees – at RQF level 6, equivalent to a degree – to transfer temporarily, it's a good, quick way to meet an immediate need.
However, most roles eligible for this visa are qualified engineers, production managers and directors, surveyors and project managers; the scope is therefore narrower, and all other construction roles are below the required level.
The salary threshold is also considerably higher than for Skilled Workers, being at least £45,800 – or more, if the role attracts a higher going rate.
For other short-term business needs, particularly on international operations, employees may be able to use the Standard Visitor visa rather than requiring work authorisation.
For example, a visitor can conduct general business activities in the UK, such as attending meetings, negotiating contracts, carrying out site visits and – in certain circumstances – giving or receiving training.
However, before signing off on a visit employers should carefully review the full list of permitted activities provided by the Home Office, to ensure that conditions won't be breached.
Activities that generate profit like selling directly to customers and working for clients while in the UK are not usually permitted and are considered productive work.
In addition to restrictions on activities, the employee cannot usually be paid by a UK business and their visits are expected to be very short in duration – usually no more than a few weeks at a time, depending on the circumstances.
Although most companies that rely on overseas workers will sponsor them, the UK's immigration system does offer a range of alternative options.
Those with a British spouse can apply for a family visa, or those with British lineage can apply for the UK Ancestry visa, while the Graduate visa allows those who are finishing degrees here to stay on and work for a further two years.
There are also around 234,000 people in the country under a visa scheme that allows refugees from Ukraine to work without restriction.
Although it is not doing so as quickly as some would like, the Home Office must be credited for its investment in bringing the UK's immigration process into the 21st century.
European applicants use an entirely digital application process and can apply for a Skilled Worker visa on an app in 30 minutes without leaving their home. The same is true for most people extending their visas when they are already in the UK.
Physical visas are also being phased out and replaced with electronic equivalents, the goal being to have a streamlined, fully digital process from 2025 and a single online dashboard.
Having an efficient visa system comes at a cost though, and government fees typically rise year on year. While this along with the administrative burden may well be factors steering companies away from sponsorship, many have nevertheless stated they simply have no other choice than to recruit overseas given the shortage of skills in the UK.
That being said, most would agree that the sponsorship system has significantly improved since 2020, with further enhancements on the way.
Despite recent headlines of record-high net migration figures, it's doubtful the government will narrow the scope for overseas recruitment in the coming years – particularly in this strategically important sector.