Peter Walker is a former Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police. He now owns SuperSkills, a construction training business.
With all that’s going on in the world, or, to use the shorthand, Brexit happening, it’s not surprising news programmes are not covering as broad a range of subjects as usual.
Which is probably why readers of ConservativeHome have not noticed that their gas cooker was connected by a ‘Low-Skilled’ worker. He or she had the requisite CORGI accreditation, will, in all probability, have served an apprenticeship, and will have been unable to work alone until an experienced gas installer had overseen enough work to certify his or her skills. But that “experienced” gas installer is officially ‘Low-Skilled’ as well.
The risks associated with this are obvious. Yet they have been compounded by the fact the electrician who wired the house is also ‘Low-Skilled’. So now we have the potential for sparks from the electrics to ignite any gas leak the ‘Low-Skilled’ gas installer permitted to happen.
Mind you, the chances are the house will fall down anyway, because all the people who worked on it are ‘Low-Skilled’.
This is obviously nonsense. But it is in danger of becoming Government-approved nonsense, because as part of the preparations for Brexit, the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee has decided that all construction trades are to be regarded as ‘Low-Skilled’.
That has implications, not least for the number of people coming into the trades. It’s been difficult enough trying to persuade schools to promote construction as a career for young people to consider without putting this additional obstacle in the way.
Trade rates of pay are now higher than they have been in ten years. Yearly earnings north of £50,000 are common. If you want to work in London, they can be even higher. A Head of Department in a school will earn on average about £43,000, but still the careers staff won’t promote construction as a valuable and rewarding career.
Tom Fitzpatrick, Editor of Construction News said recently: “Imagine the kids sitting in school hearing about ‘low-skilled’ jobs. Then ask yourself why any pupil would choose to pursue a trade, when the Prime Minister herself thinks it’s of secondary importance.”
(Actually, he’s not strictly accurate here, but she is getting some dreadful advice at the moment – that “jumping the queue” remark in her speech the other day being a prime example.)
Additionally, all the construction sector employers have all signed up to the Construction Skills Certification Scheme to ensure the workforce has the right skills and qualifications for the particular jobs they are doing. The CSCS scheme is in danger of being undermined by this proposal.
I wonder if this decision has actually been informed by regard of perceived social status of construction workers by those who make up the Migration Advisory Committee – or is it just they are woefully ill-informed about the highly technical nature of the trades involved and the level of knowledge and skill required to undertake these jobs?
There’s another, far more important issue. Placing all the construction trades in the category of ‘Low-Skilled’ work means they cannot recruit skilled tradespeople from overseas using the Tier Two visa. When this applies to workers from the EU after Brexit, firms will not be able to recruit staff in the way they have in the past.
Further complications emerged over the weekend, with the announcement that ‘Low-Skilled’ workers will only be permitted to remain in the UK for 11 months under proposed arrangements for post-Brexit immigration.
There is little prospect of people who have gained construction skills and qualifications elsewhere wanting to move to this country for such a short period.
Construction employers are already struggling to find staff, and the Metropolitan Police are rightly concerned about the increasing role organised criminal gangs are playing in meeting some of the demand by worker exploitation and undeclared employment.
The construction sector needs at least 40,000 new entrants a year, just to keep pace with last year’s ministerial promises about house-building. Both political parties have added to these numbers since then.
About 9,000 people graduated from construction apprenticeship programmes last year, and the number of youngsters starting them has fallen in the last 12 months.
That’s a shortfall each year of 31,000. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out we actually need Pavlov the Plasterer as well as Bob the Builder if we are to build the houses the country so desperately needs and deliver the infrastructure required to support economic growth.
That’s why we need to start valuing people – regardless of their occupation – for the contribution they make to society – but in particular, to get away from this poorly thought out scheme that lumps all construction workers together with this blanket ‘Low-Skilled’ label.
The Migration Advisory Committee should think again – and if they don’t, ministers should reject their proposal.