New research from consultants Arcadis says that UK construction could lose out on as many as 215,000 EU workers from house building and infrastructure due to Brexit. With the nation’s skills gap becoming ever more acute, Arcadis now calls for an urgent focus on retraining and modernisation.

Arcadis believes that a potential ‘hard’ Brexit scenario – for instance, extending the points-based system currently in place for non-EU migrants – could see the number of EU construction workers entering the UK fall at the rate of attrition. This would mean that EU nationals could leave the industry at a quicker rate than they can be replaced. If this were to play out, Arcadis estimates that almost 215,000 fewer people from the EU would enter the infrastructure and house building sectors between now and 2020.

Meanwhile, even in the event of a ‘soft’ Brexit the construction workforce could again see a steady reduction in numbers. Arcadis has analysed a scenario whereby, for instance, quotas are introduced or policies implemented on a sector-by-sector basis, allowing for a degree of EU migration into the sector. Here, Arcadis estimate that approximately 135,000 fewer EU nationals would relocate to British construction.

Arcadis say that regardless of the outcome of the eventual negotiations, restricting EU migration to the UK could add significantly to the administrative burden of satisfying visa requirements. This is likely to both slow the recruitment process and increase costs for construction employers, potentially seeing further lags in building the homes and infrastructure the UK needs. Given the tight timescales in which the industry must now adapt, if British construction is to flourish in the short- to medium-term it has to rapidly modernise. The likes of robotics and off-site manufacturing have never been taken as seriously as they should, but they could well make a sizeable difference. So, too, could training and even retraining the unemployed and underemployed could be a significant benefit to an industry under significant pressure.

Arcadis is currently looking into the impact of the skills gap on house building and infrastructure in regions across the UK and will publish the findings in early 2017.