Robert Smith of Hays Construction & Property reports on the booming South-east

With the government unveiling plans to build more than 600,000 homes in the South-east by 2025, there is an abundance of regeneration projects along the M20 corridor into Kent. Schools, hospitals and retail units are being developed to service the thousands of homes, and the pull on labour resources is being felt across the entire industry, from planners and surveyors, to craftsmen and project managers.

Projects under way at present vary in size and budget. Bexley council, in conjunction with R Durtnell, Botes and Crispin & Borst, is working on building extensions to schools across the borough. The projects range in cost from £500,000 to £7m.

By contrast, Southern Water is about to appoint a contractor to organise £1bn worth of refurbishment and development work on its infrastructure. This money must be spent in the next five years, which will create even more demand in the South-east's labour market.

Given this background, it is no surprise that many companies are experiencing severe skills shortages, and the lack of young blood in the industry is causing growing concern.

A few of the positions that are proving difficult to fill include quantity surveyors, estimators, and project managers. Companies are crying out for intermediate candidates whom they can train to their own specifications and requirements. Businesses are asking for project QSs, who are generally based on site. They are proving difficult to find since more mature candidates feel that they have done their time in wellington boots.

"The South-east has seen huge demands placed on the construction staff owing to the sheer volume of work," says Helen Kirk-Brown, a manager with Hays Construction & Property. "The South-east has experienced skills shortages for five years, but these have worsened over the past 18 months. For every chartered surveyor, there are 30 potential employers, and this trend is repeated across the building services, architecture and construction fields."

Hays Construction & Property witnessed this shortage first-hand. A company wanted a local project manager with at least five years' experience to work at a senior level with a large subcontractor or main contractor. Applicants needed to be able to work on a big site with minimal supervision, and had to have experience with reinforced concrete frames. The package was a salary of £46,000, a £5000 car allowance, and 20 days' holiday. This position proved very difficult to fill.

A second example was the company that wanted to find an assistant quantity surveyor. The company wanted a project QS with two to five years' experience, but was flexible about where the candidate came from.

It offered a a starting salary of £23,000, along with a Ford Focus, a fuel card, a pension, and healthcare benefits. It took several months to find an applicant who met all of these requirements.

As a direct result of the skills shortage, traditional salary structures are being abandoned in favour of a negotiated approach. Generous benefits are given as standard: most of the larger companies offer an expense-paid car or a car allowance, private healthcare, a good pension scheme and 25 days' paid holiday.

At the same time, companies are seeking candidates with more formal training and qualifications in health and safety matters. This is highlighted by the increasing requirement for CSCS-registered candidates.

The overall outlook is positive for the next year. Spending on schools will increase with the advent of Schools for the Future, and budgets for the NHS are also expanding. "I'm very optimistic about the next 12 months," says Kirk-Brown. "The South-east is booming."