Even managers in the hard-hit construction industry report difficulties finding workers with the right skills.
“It can either be in particular technical areas – applications software specialists who know their way around internet protocol technology, for example – or more generic requirements,” says Mark Andrews, chief executive of N G Bailey, a building services provider. “In the south and London, where work is holding up better, finding good project managers, project engineers and commercial managers continues to be a challenge.”
Eighteen months ago those pressures were felt across the country and Yorkshire-based N G Bailey, which employs about 4,000 people and provides mechanical, electrical and IT functions for office and public buildings, had to cut hundreds of jobs.
Commercial work looks unlikely to come back for years. Public sector work has kept companies going but a spending squeeze is looming.
Mr Andrews says: “A lot of people, including me, are so focused on trying to manage a very significant downturn that it is easy to take your eye off the ball in terms of the longer-term issues on skills.”
He is a member of the Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network, which promotes hiring of apprentices. N G Bailey is trying to keep recruitment going: it will take fewer than 10 graduates this year, half its normal level, and 60-plus apprentices, a third fewer than usual.
“We have got an ageing population in this industry and we need to keep people coming into it,” Mr Andrews says. “But it does ... get quite difficult when we are laying off experienced people to ensure that we are feeding that pipeline.”
He is optimistic that industries such as construction will become more attractive to graduate engineers less entranced by earnings in financial services. But construction companies are likely to face a barren period followed by a dramatic increase in work when the nuclear power station building programme begins in four or five years.
“We’ve got a country that has not built a power station for 25 years and we’ve got a combination of planning issues and political issues that mean we could end up building six of them in parallel, which is an absolutely absurd demand in terms of workforce and skills.”