Private and social housing projects in the Midlands are boosting demand for experienced construction professionals, says Robert Smith of Hays Montrose
Construction has been buoyant for some years now in the Midlands – although activity in the region slowed in the past few months of 2003. A downturn for the West Midlands affected overall figures for the region, with the area's activity levels dropping to the lowest in the UK during November. Despite the recent trend, recruitment consultants insist this should not necessarily be seen as negative.

Hays Montrose regional director Adrian Basu says: "The market was in danger of overheating at the end of 2002 because the demand for construction professionals reached new heights that could not possibly be sustained. But the following year two major projects finished – the Birmingham Bull Ring and the M6 Toll Road – which eased pressures somewhat on the local labour pool." Despite this lull, activity is certainly picking up, with Basu expecting much more activity in the Midlands over 2004/05.

Most growth in the past year has been due to housing developments. Residential contracts have created a huge demand for site managers and there has been increased competition between local and national contractors to secure their services. Most of these projects are in the East Midlands, but there has also been a lot of university accommodation going up at the four universities in the region, Warwick, Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham.

Social housebuilding is also strong, particularly in Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and Birmingham – and there is a £20m retirement village project starting in Northampton. Lovell and Wates are in partnership with local housing associations to refurbish and rebuild most of Coventry's housing stock, with speculative housing the most prominent sector in urban settings such as Warwick and Stratford-on-Avon.

To cope with all this work, managers, planners, quantity surveyors, engineers and estimators of all levels are in the highest demand. Phil Jackson, manager at Hays Montrose Leicester, says planners are the most difficult to find in the area: "No matter what we try they still remain hard to source. All companies, particularly the smaller and more regional firms, are seeking to recruit candidates who are experienced enough to add value and run jobs straight away."

One consequence of the local skills shortages is that design teams have begun to work around the lack of tradespeople. They are now using modular types of construction and high-tech materials that don't need fitting by specialist plasterers, bricklayers, asphalt layers or felt roofers. These teams are often using a single membrane in lieu of asphalt, prefabricated panels in lieu of brickwork and drylining in lieu of wet plaster.

A lot of recruitment on the production side of contracting is seasonal, although the signs are promising for a good year ahead. "During the early months of the year and just before summer, contractors recruit quite aggressively," says Dave Deemer, a senior consultant with Hays Montrose Leicester. "The benefits being offered are becoming more flexible in order to attract the right staff. We have found that although pension schemes and healthcare schemes tend to be similar, the packages available for cars or a car allowance can be a dealmaker for candidates. Companies will usually be more flexible in this area."

As for salaries, these will continue to grow in all disciplines as long as the industry remains buoyant – which is likely in a region with a lot of large projects about to take off.