“We have come off a cliff edge’’, proclaims Jerry Swain, the national officer for construction at Unite the Union. He is talking about the UK’s current skills shortage, an issue which has been brewing for at least as long as the last decade, and intensified by the recent impacts of Brexit and Covid. With Boris Johnson’s dictum that we must ‘build back better’ ringing across media channels, industry leaders are beginning to question whether this ambition will be possible without a surge in new skilled tradespeople.
“The industry has relied on foreign labour”, Swain continues. “It takes at least two years to make a decent bricklayer or carpenter. So now there is a limited pool to draw from”. It is an issue which has plagued industry leaders for over five years now – with a considerable dependence on EU workers making up the construction industry taskforce, what will happen when they eventually return to the EU? Without relaxing migrant visas to make the employment process more viable, it looks as though we have to depend upon homegrown skilled tradespeople. But is there enough being done to encourage this?
Well, considering the significant wage rise seen all across the board for tradespeople, it’s surprising that more people haven’t jumped on the bandwagon, though many have taken up the mantle and upskilled during the pandemic. Wages are skyrocketing for tradespeople. As an example, the Financial Times reported that the typical bricklayer is raking in around £220 per day, and often more. Before the pandemic, this figure was around £150-180, and this considerable growth is true of all trades across the board. Tradespeople are in such demand that they are able to command their salaries to an unprecedented level. Things have never looked more promising for those with the right skills – so why aren’t more people joining the workforce?
Building companies are similarly baffled at the lack of available skilled tradespeople. A recent survey conducted by the Federation of Master Builders found that ‘more than half of its members were struggling to find the workers they need. The Financial Times also reported the case of Phil Wish, a builder and architect from Brighton, whose construction project was at serious risk of facing a long delay had he not had to muck in with the work himself, even convincing family members to help him out in order to get the job done.
‘I couldn’t find an electrician for love nor money’, he says. The strain on the construction industry is taking its toll on smaller domestic projects, like Phil’s, as well as larger scale nationwide projects. All come under the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s promise to ‘build back better’, and Phil’s experience has left him less than hopeful: ‘you can’t build back better without enough builders’.
Phil offers his opinion as to why more people aren’t joining the ranks of thriving tradespeople, putting it down to an “ingrained snobbery towards the trades”. He suggests that the perception of the trade industry is still serving as a huge obstacle to attracting bigger numbers of young skilled workers, despite attempts to change the image of construction. Trade jobs are, in Phil’s opinion, “seen as a last resort for kids who’ve failed to get into university". The enormous value, dignity and high-skilled nature of these jobs is not being sold to the masses, and it is of great importance that this message is communicated loud, clear – and quickly.
‘Build back better’ is beginning to absorb an essence of irony about it, as Boris Johnson’s promise is clearly under-delivering. Those within the trade industry are beginning to see it as something of a joke, as they continue to struggle with a dramatically limited workforce; projects are facing delays, and on top of this, material shortages are proving difficult to overcome.
A survey by Homebuilders Federation found the following concerning statistics, to give a stark indication of just how much work there is to be done. For every 10,000 new houses built, 30,000 new recruits are needed; this includes 2,500 bricklayers, 1,000 carpenters, and 300 electricians. Considering that the UK Government has aimed for 300,000 new houses to be built every year, there is clearly a gargantuan task ahead of us.
But what is the solution? Further education colleges have been seen to be failing in their attempts to provide the country with the next generation of tradespeople. Jenny Herdman, director of the home building skills partnership at the Homebuilders Federation, has noted how potential young tradespeople are slipping through the cracks of these institutions, and suggests that as many as 60-70,000 young people who ‘could come into construction every year’ do not end up doing so. And even if those people are signing up for apprenticeships, this option takes too long to provide the UK with a supply of tradespeople in the necessary time.
Private training colleges such as Access Training are the way forward. Offering direct, dynamic training with the sole intention of setting you up for business, teaching you the skills you need, perfecting your craft and getting you onsite. It just takes one call for you to be a part of something bigger – a valued member of the trade industry.
Learn your trade. Get qualified. Make it happen.