With Brexit less than a year away, Colin Marrs looks at the problems practices face with recruitment as applications from EU nationals drop
In his excoriating memo, David Chipperfield urged RIBA to speak louder on a number of dangers facing the architectural profession as a result of Brexit. Among these, he cites the situation of foreign nationals who work in architects’ offices across the country.
‘Of course we know the government has not got answers,’ Chipperfield said, ‘let alone real ones. Admittedly, there is a degree of futility in even asking, but is it not dangerous not to demand, not to make a clear representation, or to make our opinions and our concerns explicit?’
Statistics can be misleading. But the combination of new data with fresh anecdotal evidence is painting an increasingly worrying picture about the effect of Brexit on practices’ ability to find staff.
This potential recruitment crisis is, according to some architects, being driven by the departure of EU nationals following the referendum vote.
The general figures seem clear enough. In the year to June 2016 – the month of the UK’s Brexit referendum – the net number of European Union citizens arriving in the UK reached a peak of 189,000. The latest data released by the Office for National Statistics shows that, in the year to September 2016, the number had fallen by more than half – to 90,000.
Add to that the findings from a recent RIBA Brexit study, which revealed that 60 per cent of the UK-based architects surveyed had considered leaving the country. This is a sharp rise on the 40 per cent of architects who said that the previous year.
The same survey showed that 86 per cent of architects considered access to international talent and skills a top priority. These figures prompted the institute to admit it was ‘very concerned about the immediate impact of the loss of valued EU architects’ and called on the government to be more robust in its approach to ensuring EU nationals feel welcome.
So with less than a year to go till the UK’s official exit from the EU, how big a problem is Brexit for firms looking to fill vacancies?
Many in the sector say there has already been a significant effect. Paul Chappell, director at recruitment consultancy 9B Careers, estimates his firm is receiving 60 per cent fewer applications from EU nationals than before the referendum. ‘There has definitely been a big change since the referendum,’ he says and a lot of people I have been dealing with who are already in the UK have relocated.’
Nick Willson, director of London-based Nick Willson Architects, says a dearth of applications has made it harder for him to expand his firm on the back of winning a series of large new contracts. ‘Last time we put out ads, a couple of years ago, we got around 100 or so CVs from European nationals,’ he says. ‘This time we only got about 20. We will get there, but It just causes more stress.’
Willson believes that smaller practices have been particularly badly hit by what he believes is a slowdown in interest from continental architects. ‘The impact depends on what size of practice you run,’ he says. ‘If you are a famous firm then people are more likely to still go and work for you, particularly if the competition is less intensive than it has been.’
Even some of the most upbeat assessments of the current recruitment situation are qualified. ‘I would not say numbers are down particularly,’ says AHMM managing director Peter Morris, ‘although my gut feel is that the quality of applications is declining slightly.’
Lipton Plant managing director Jonathan Plant says that while his firm has seen ‘no great drop-off’ in applications from Europeans, he thinks his firm’s situation is not directly comparable with many other practices. ‘I don’t think it has affected us as much as others because we have generally never employed direct from Europe,’ he says. ‘We want people who already have some UK experience, and they tend to already be resident here.’
Scott Brownrigg human resources director Kim Balchin adds that while the Brexit vote has ‘not affected staff composition as much as initially anticipated, ‘in terms of recruitment we have experienced significantly fewer direct candidates applying from the EU in comparison to pre-Brexit.’
She adds: ‘Concerns over visa status are likely to be the main reason they decide not to apply.’
Although bigger data on worker numbers has been published, exact data showing the specific impact of the Brexit vote on architectural recruitment is harder to come by. One available set, from the Architects Registration Board (ARB), shows 945 architects applied to join its register via the EU route in 2017, down from the highs of 1,072 and 1,232 and in 2015 and 2016 respectively. However, the figure is still well up on the years before that – in 2012 only 429 applicants used the EU route.
An ARB spokesperson says that caution should be taken in reading too much into the 2017 drop. ‘The increase in new admissions during 2016 is likely to be due to a combination of factors including the UK economy, the availability of work, applicants deciding to apply prior to the EU referendum vote as well as increased awareness of the possibility of mobility amongst EU citizens,’ they say.
Any Brexit-caused problems with the available labour pool could be compounded by architects already working in the UK deciding to return home, say some in the sector. ‘With over 20 per cent of architects currently working in the UK from the EU, the RIBA is very concerned about the immediate impact of the loss of valued EU architects,’ says the RIBA Global by Design report.
Clearly, any worker takes into account a wide variety of factors when deciding to up sticks to another country – not least individual economic prospects of the countries under consideration. Whether a result of Brexit or not, the UK’s growth forecast of 1.3 per cent for 2018 is the weakest among the G20 countries. Belsize Architects’ director David Green says: ‘The EU as a whole is doing better than the UK. It doesn’t mean it is doing brilliantly, but the odds have changed.’
Chappell agrees, saying that signs of life in the previously limp economies of southern Europe could be a factor in any decline in applications from Europe.
‘There was a big influx from southern Europe after the last recession after their economies were hit badly,’ he says. ‘Although I don’t think these economies are exactly booming now, they are improving, and when you add a bit of negative sentiment towards the prospects for the UK economy, the effect is concentrated.’
Willson says any dearth of Spanish architects and Eastern European architects would have serious consequences for the current business model of his and many other architectural practices.
‘In Spain, the technical skills are better than architects trained in England, who are more sparky design wise,’ he says. ‘We always try to get a blend of the two but that is getting more difficult.’
According to those who are noticing changes in the labour market, problems are most acute at the junior level. Chappell has noticed a rise in the number of practices approaching him to help fill Part 1 and Part 2 roles.
‘We have certainly got a few more of these which we didn’t have a few years ago,’ he says. ‘It used to be just the senior roles that we dealt with but the trend seems to highlight that practices are now struggling to fill more junior roles.’
At the other end of the spectrum, however, problems are likely to be slower to become apparent. Plant says that senior architects take longer to ponder their moves. ‘Those with five to 10 years’ experience at a firm tend to move less frequently and with more seriousness,’ he says, adding that factors complicating the decisions made by this group include higher wages and family responsibilities.
But does any drop in the number of European architects working in the UK really matter, if it provides more opportunities for an aspiring domestic workforce? Plant thinks it does. ‘Having a richness of background and heritage is good for creativity,’ he says. ‘We need to keep being challenged by our team and a greater variety of backgrounds gives that. If we all went to the Bartlett, we would all come out relatively similar.’
Nonetheless, with architecture training taking many years, many believe the government needs to take action now to avoid a sudden plummet in available skills following Brexit. Del Hossein, managing director at recruitment firm Adrem Group, says: ‘Unless we train people, practices could struggle.’
He suggests that the sector may be forced into speeding up the time it takes to train architects, although he admits that that would not entirely solve a worst-case scenario skills gap.
Seb Chambers, managing partner at management consultant CIL, says: ‘Much of the issue is not just about being educated by having experience and the technical skills more often seen in European architects. Creating a course of 40 weeks a year could take two years out of the process of training to be an architect.’
Chambers is optimistic that other solutions will be found to avoid disaster. ‘Let’s not underestimate human ingenuity,’ he says. ‘Part of this could involve paying more for skills, but we still have a long way to go in terms of using technology to make practices more efficient.’
It is not easy to definitively state that European architects are beginning to turn their back on the UK. The RIBA believes that an agreement on mutually recognised qualifications as part of the Brexit deal would go a long way to preventing a recruitment crisis. However, until the final shape of Brexit emerges, uncertainty about the future is likely to be at least one factor in the mind of those considering setting up home here.