Could migrant workers be key to infrastructure projects?

Posted on: 20.01.2010    11:40:59

In the last few months, the government has announced a number of major construction projects, on top of the huge undertaking that is the Olympics.

Most recently, plans to build new wind farms across various coastal areas of the UK were unveiled by prime minister Gordon Brown and energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband.

The major expansion of wind energy projects will create up to 70,000 clean energy jobs by 2020, but rumours already circulate that these will not necessarily be filled by British workers due to a skills shortage in the construction industry.

Paul Willson of PB Power told the Daily Telegraph that there was a dearth in mechanical and civil engineers with the specialist skills required to manufacture and install large numbers of offshore turbines.

“The resources we need to build these things in time will be huge and I suspect that the reality is it will be very challenging to find the equipment and skills to put the foundations in place never mind the infrastructure,” he commented.

Eddie O’Connor, chief executive of Mainstream Renewable Power, echoed Mr Willson’s comments.

He told the Guardian that skills shortages were a potential stumbling block for the wind farms project.

This wind farm project follows the announcement that ten new nuclear power stations will be built over the next 15 years.

Bradwell, Braystones, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Kirksanton, Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa have all been selected as the locations for the new builds, with planning approval being hastened by a change to policy, allowing major energy projects to be sanctioned more quickly.

It remains to be seen how recruitment for these projects will work, but the government recently gave a strong indication that migrant workers could be the key to completing major infrastructure ventures.

The Home Office is undertaking research entitled ‘Would the needs of large projects be sensibly met through immigration?’.

There will be two phases to the study: an evidence review identifying gaps in the workforce and key issues followed by a programme of meetings with important stakeholders relevant to construction projects.

The Home Office identified several large-scale, publicly-funded schemes which are either in the planning stage or have entered the initial phases of construction work, including Crossrail, High Speed Line 2, the decommission of
existing electricity generating capacity and the London Olympics, as potential areas for migrant worker recruitment.

Its research will address why skills shortages occur and whether they are likely to exist for only limited periods of time, what type of labour is required for such projects and how shortages inflate the cost and extend delivery time-scales.

Following on from that, it will look at whether employing migrant workers would be the sensible response to gaps in the workforce and, if it is an appropriate plan, whether the required immigration could be facilitated through current arrangements, or whether an alternative policy would be preferable.

The infrastructure projects associated with the Olympics are extensive. A new Energy Centre, Primary Substation and Pumping Station are all being built, in addition to more than 30 new bridges spanning the numerous rivers and railways that run through the Olympic Park.

These developments are on top of the 80,000 capacity Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Village which will eventually be transformed into 2,800 new homes.

Other venues being constructed from scratch include the Aquatics Centre, Basketball Arena, Broxbourne White Water Canoe Centre, Eton Manor wheelchair tennis stadium, Greenwich Park equestrian centre and Hadleigh Farm mountain bike facility.

Furthermore, the Handball Arena, Hockey Centre, Horse Guards Parade Beach Volleyball arena, 3,000-capacity triathlon venue in Hyde Park, Badminton and Gymnastics centre, shooting gallery and Velodrome will also need to be constructed.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, overseas workers currently make up around six per cent of the construction industry workforce in the UK, although this figure jumps to 26 per cent for Greater London.

The latest report from Construction Skills said that the UK industry has benefited significantly from migration. The research indicated that there had been a decline in the number of less well-qualified people in the sector.

Construction Skills said that although skills shortages do not seem to be a problem currently, this could be a big issue going forward as the country emerges from recession.

“One of the biggest risks to the recovery of the construction industry is a shortage of skills as people made redundant seek new careers outside the industry,” it explained.


Author: Chris Slay

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