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A lack of bricklayers, electricians and plasterers has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to overcoming Britain’s acute shortage of housing.
The swift recovery in housebuilding has exposed a scarcity of people with the requisite skills, figures from the construction industry show.
“There is no question that we are facing a skills shortage in the sector,” said John Tutte, chief executive of housebuilder Redrow.
“We can’t get away from the fact we have an ageing workforce, lack of broad investment in education and vocational training, as well as a cultural hangover.”
An estimated 240,000 houses a year need to be built to meet demand according to one estimate by the Town and Country Planning Association, but in the year to September only 117,000 were built.
Housebuilders slashed the number of workers when the recession hit in 2008 and many of those tradesmen have since left the country or found a new profession.
But in the past 18 months demand has recovered sharply and the industry is racing to keep up. Between 2007 and 2010 the number of houses built fell roughly 40 per cent to 107,000, according to the government.
A swift recovery followed last year with 140,000 houses being constructed during the year to September, a 17 per cent rise on the preceding 12 months.
“The UK construction industry is nearing capacity, especially in London,” said Mark Farmer, head of development at building consultancy EC Harris.
“The sheer volume of skilled trade workers is just not out there to meet the demand for new houses,” said James Hick, managing director of recruiter ManpowerGroup Solutions.
Rob Perrins, managing director of London housebuilder Berkeley, said in December that in the capital, skills shortages had overtaken planning and land availability as the biggest constraint on his business.
The number of construction tradespeople claiming unemployment benefit at the peak of the boom in 2007 was about 35,000. This soared to more than 100,000 during the worst of the recession but in December the figure was, at 17,000, far below the pre-crisis norm.
A survey of small and medium-sized construction companies by the Federation of Master Builders found that 44 per cent reported problems hiring carpenters in the last three months of 2014, up from 23 per cent a year earlier.
The industry has an image problem, said Stephen Radley of the Construction Industry Training Board, with not enough school-leavers viewing a construction trade as a desirable career.
Mr Radley cited research showing that a third of school careers advisers discourage pupils from the sector, adding that “we need to improve the image and reality of working in the sector”.
The emergence of shortages of certain skills “strongly suggests”, said the training board, that the industry has permanently lost many of those who were made unemployed during the recession.
Those that remain in the industry are older and not enough young people are being trained to replace them, said John Seasman, a director of recruitment agency Reed Property & Construction.
About 8,000 people completed construction apprenticeships in the 2013-14 academic year, down 58 per cent on 2008-09, according to the government. Census data show that between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of construction tradespeople aged 40 or older rose from 51 to 57 per cent.
The new political consensus on the need to build more housing and the extension of the Help to Buy scheme until 2020 have given the industry a confidence to invest in training that was previously absent, Mr Turner said.
The opposition Labour party wants to see the number of homes built rise to 200,000 a year, the Liberal Democrats want 300,000 and the Conservatives want more but do not have a target.
“Only in recent years have politicians demonstrated a real commitment to increasing supply,” Mr Turner said.
Mr Farmer said: “What the public sector can do is to use a recession to increase its output a lot more. If you can deal with that, you can take some of the peaks and troughs out and have a long-term investment climate.”
The industry had benefited from immigrants from eastern Europe, many of whom are skilled tradesmen and not just labourers, he said. Britain “needs to keep attracting that kind of workforce”.
Wages have risen in the face of rising demand. “We are certainly seeing double-digit percentage wage inflation” for certain trades such as bricklayers and electricians, said Duncan Bullimore, a director at Hays Construction, a recruitment agency.
He added that bricklayers could earn £1,000 a week. “There are plenty of developers that are willing to pay that if the level of production and quality is right.”
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