Construction skills shortage worsens as resi workloads rise

Severe shortage of bricklayers and carpenters is "now seeping into other key trades"

The UK’s dearth of bricklayers and carpenters is “seeping into other key trades such as roofers and plumbers”, reports the Federation of Master Builders, which is worried that a hard Brexit may make things even worse – and more expensive for property developers.

Almost half (46%) of construction SMEs are reporting difficulties hiring roofers, reports the FMB, while shortages of electricians and plasterers are at their highest point in four years, and 41% of firms are having trouble finding plumbers.

Percentage of SME construction firms reporting difficulty in recruiting selected tradespeople
Percentage of SME construction firms reporting difficulty in recruiting selected tradespeople

The shortage of decent labour is being driven/exacerbated by continued growth in the construction sector; the SME construction sector has experienced 15 consecutive quarters of growth, according top FMB workings, although things are slowing down a touch. Q4 2016 – while still recording positive workload growth – saw the pace of growth ease for second quarter in a row.

A “relatively strong” residential construction sector is buoying things up, with the share of firms reporting an increase in resi workloads rising to 30% in Q4, from 26% in Q3, while those reporting decreasing workloads fell to 15% from 23%. Private housebuilding and repairs is leading the way, ahead of social projects.

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the FMB: “We’ve been experiencing a severe shortage of bricklayers and carpenters for quite some time – these latest statistics show that skills shortages are now seeping into other key trades such as roofers and plumbers. Indeed, of the 15 key trades and occupations we monitor, 40% show skills shortages at their highest point since we started to feel the effects of the skills crisis in 2013 when the industry bounced back post-downturn. This growing skills deficit is driving up costs for small firms and simultaneously adding to the pressure being felt by soaring material prices linked to the weaker pound.

“The Government needs to be taking note of the worsening construction skills shortage now that we know that the UK will be negotiating a hard Brexit. The Prime Minister must ensure that the immigration system that replaces the free movement of people serves key sectors such as construction and house building. Our sector relies heavily on skilled labour from the EU, with 12% of the British construction workforce being of non-UK origin. As the construction industry represents around 7% of UK GDP, it’s in no one’s interest to pull the rug out from under the sector by introducing an inflexible and unresponsive immigration system.

“On a more positive note, construction SMEs reported steady growth in the final three months of 2016, capping off a generally positive year for the industry. In particular, demand for private refurbishment work was robust throughout 2016 and in terms of private and social house building, builders expect workloads to grow in the first three months of 2017. However, if the Government wants the objectives of its Housing White Paper to be realised, it will need to ensure the construction sector has the skilled workers it needs to build these new homes.”