We don’t normally mix business with politics here at SGPR, but some things are just too important not to take a stand on, and the looming issue of ‘Brexit’ is one of those things.
For us the business case to stay is compelling; we are construction specialists, and this is a sector that is likely to be hit hard if we leave the European Union. Already we have seen a slowdown in output and in investment, as people wait to see what the outcome will be. We can feel the wobble in the economy, and these are anxious times.
One of the most crucial issues affecting our capacity to deliver the current strong pipeline of construction work in the UK is the well documented skills shortage. Even before the recession brought about a haemorrhage of skilled workers from the industry, there were areas such as the wet trades where shortages were starting to cause problems and delays. With the fall out from 2008 things have got far worse; an entire generation is effectively missing due to the lack of work and training opportunities, not to mention the droves of experienced workers who were forced to leave and find alternative lines of work, never to return.
It is going to take time to plug that gap. Even if we can encourage enough young people to consider a career in construction, and find the means to train them adequately, it will be years before they have the competencies that we need right now. Our only option is to turn to the numbers of skilled migrant workers who are willing and able to fill those roles, help train up the apprentices on site, and deliver the work that will give the industry the sustained growth that, in turn, will support our economy. This in itself is not a new thing – construction has always relied heavily on such grafters.
Of course, migrant workers provide a contentious and emotive topic for the ‘Leave’ campaign, with the oft vocalised complaint that they are ‘coming over here and stealing our jobs’. Well folks, the truth is that the majority come and do the jobs that we either can’t or won’t do, and we need them.
On the other side of the argument you could ask yourself what will happen to all the ex-pats currently living and working in the rest of the EU (roughly 1.2 million at the last count according to the UN). Will they suddenly find that their welcome is less than warm? Because this is a two way street, and we also have skills we can bring to the European market.
If we want to continue trading freely with our European neighbours, we will still have to allow the free movement of people, and adhere to the regulations that are laid down in Brussels, regardless of whether we are in or out. The only difference if we are out (and it is a big difference), is that we will have no say in how those regulations are formulated in the future. Personally, I want to be sure that we have a voice at that table when the decisions are being made. I know for a fact through the work I have done with European trade bodies that the UK has been highly influential in both formulating and moderating European legislation that has a direct impact on construction. If we leave, that moderating influence will be lost.
I have heard arguments put forward by small, local businesses, that it is only the bigger companies who trade globally who benefit from our membership. This is a somewhat blinkered approach to the realities of the economy. Our ability to trade in Europe attracts big companies to our shores, attracts investment, and helps to create jobs. Without those things there could well be higher unemployment and less wealth to spend at a local level, so those parochial businesses would also stand to lose out.
Yes, membership of the EU costs us a lot of money, but we also get a lot in return, not just from trade but also in the shape of funding and support for things that would otherwise no longer exist in these times of austerity. Things such as funding for research (€8.8 billion between 2007 and 2013 in the UK), culture, youth initiatives, health and the environment, as well as support for small businesses. We ourselves have received European funding for business development training we could not otherwise have afforded. I for one have no faith that the money we currently put into Europe would be spent more wisely by the current, or indeed any other government.
Ultimately, nobody knows how this will play out – it is clear that there are pros and cons to either outcome. However, I believe that as part of the European Union we have an important part to play in the world; a part that would almost certainly be diminished if we tried to stand alone.
Whatever your view is, this is not a time to sit on the fence or to show complacency. So ‘in’ or ‘out’, make sure that you get to the polling booth on the 23rd June and exercise your right to vote.