This is a good time to be in salary negotiations – especially if you’re a young professional from the antipodes. Victoria Madine analyses the 2004 Hays Montrose/Building contractors’ salary guide, Brett Ryder provides the kangaroo

hey may not drive BMW Z4 Roadsters or be custodians of the company credit card, but young construction professionals can, at least, make one boast. The 2004 Hays Montrose/Building contractors’ salary guide shows that many are raking in larger salary increases than their older colleagues.

Graduate engineers are banking an average of 13.3% more money than last year, and assistant quantity surveyors are taking home 4.1% more. In comparison, senior surveyors have only managed a 3.8% increase. Site agents aged 27 have secured 5.5% increases – and that’s 0.3% more than their 40–year-old bosses.

But although the survey shows that the young have done relatively well for themselves, few will get too excited. In fact, the strongest trend revealed by the survey over the past year is that salary growth for most construction staff has slowed compared with previous years.

All sectors have managed a salary growth that exceeds inflation, but for the majority it’s only by a couple of percentage points. Buyers, in particular, are only a hair’s breadth ahead of inflation (the Retail Prices Index is about 3%), with an average salary increase of 3.2%.

Dave Townsend, senior consultant in the Bristol office of Hays Montrose, says that young professionals in the South-west, especially those with a couple of years’ experience, know they are in a “candidates’ market”.

He says: “A company we dealt with recently got so desperate for new blood that they placed a non-construction graduate in a buyer’s role. They couldn’t get anyone with the usual background. I think employers will be increasingly ready to take on graduates of any flavour in sectors where there are dire shortages.”

The upshot of the lack of graduates in the buyer and surveyor sectors is that prospective employees are charging more for their services and demanding more responsibility at an earlier stage. Townsend says: “A lot of graduates want responsibility from day one. The Bristol area, for example, has so much work starting on site, such as the regeneration of the Canons Marsh area and the new 10,000-seat Bristol Arena, that employers have to try and meet these demands.”

Consultants elsewhere are experiencing a similar scenario. Sadie Coughlan, a principal consultant at Hays Montrose covering the southern Home Counties, says young quantity surveyors earning less than £30,000 are the most in-demand construction professionals in her area. But as she points out, one reason why salaries are increasing faster for younger members of the construction team is that older professionals are constrained by the “golden handcuff” effect.

Coughlan says: “The heavyweight professionals, those who have been in the business for many years, are enjoying their employers’ benefits and bonuses so don’t want to move jobs just to gain a few extra grand.” The result is that pressure on seniors’ salaries is not as intense as it was three or four years ago.

Bill Chitty, recruitment manager in Hays Montrose’s London office, says that employers are increasingly investing in training in order to retain staff, and that clients are adding to the pressure on employers to invest in staff. “It’s happening more and more often that regular clients such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s are asking to see a company’s record of training and development when they choose a contractor. They want to make sure that the individuals who work on their project have the right skills and experience,” he says.

Chitty has noticed another trend, and one that may alarm home-grown graduates. Among contractors in the capital, there is a growing penchant for antipodean staff. “A 30-year-old Australian or New Zealander surveyor generally has a wider skills base than his or her British counterpart, and clients have picked up on this. If an Aussie goes on to our books, I know he or she will be able to get a job almost immediately,” he says.

Chitty says that British site managers with experience on the commercial side of construction and the site-based coalface are rare, but this combination in more common in CVs from the Antipodes and South Africa.

I think employers will be increasingly ready to take on graduates of any flavour in sectors where there are dire shortages

Dave Townsend, Hays Montrose Bristol

One professional that is always in demand – irrespective of the colour of their passport – is the senior quantity surveyor. Recruitment consultants agree that they are like gold dust, and this means their employers do their level best to hang on to them. “If a senior surveyor is making a move, often it’s not for money. It’s to expand their experience base,” says Townsend.

So what are the other recruitment pressure points around the country? In East Anglia site agents, project managers and senior engineers are in high demand and commanding packages of up to £40,000, catching up with London salaries. The growth in site agents’ earnings reflects a trend around the country – on average their salaries have increased 5.2%.

In the Midlands, apart from site managers and, of course, senior surveyors, the most sought-after individuals are planners, engineers and junior estimators. In both the East and West Midlands, planners have enjoyed salary rises of over 6% this year as employers have tried to tempt them to relocate to the area.

In the North-east, housing, highway construction and transportation projects are so thick on the ground that site managers, civil and structural engineers, contracting quantity surveyors, architects, building services engineers and tradesmen are as rare as hen’s teeth.

David Hutton, area manager for Hays Montrose’s north-eastern office, says that housing site managers are particularly hard to come by. He says: “There’s a huge amount of regeneration work in the region and that includes a lot of new social housing. Individuals with experience in this sector are highly sought after.”

Major regeneration schemes in Manchester and Liverpool have led to a dearth of construction professionals across the board and salary increases that have overtaken inflation. As well as health schemes, a company car or car allowance and a contributory pension, these often involve a performance-related bonus worth up to 10% of the annual salary.

The recruitment market in Wales is experiencing mixed fortunes. Motorways and distribution projects, along with commercial and retail developments in Cardiff’s docklands, are creating huge demand and salary increases for construction professionals. However, the recruitment market is slowing up in some areas. Steve Lias, section manager at Hays Montrose’s Cardiff office, says housebuilders in particular are now more selective. “The housing market has slowed a little. But good candidates with a strong record will always find a job.”

In Scotland, as elsewhere in the UK, site and project managers as well as quantity surveyors are in high demand. Pay has dramatically increased over the past five years. In 1999, a senior surveyor would have been on a £22-23,000 salary. This has now rised to the £35, 000 mark. As salaries have gathered pace over the past two years, Scots have been lured back from south-eastern England to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The past year has brought a steady salary increase for most construction professionals and left graduates flushed. Recruitment consultants’ prognosis is that these increases are sustainable and the market is set to stay strong at least for the next two years. The key is to keep developing your CV. Chitty says: “It’s an employee’s market so make the most of it and develop your CV.

It’s a very wise investment.”

Key findings

  • Graduate engineers have seen the highest average pay increases across the country of all groups, up 13.3% on 2003. Engineers based in north-east England lead the trend.

  • Contract managers, estimators with over five years’ experience, planners and general foremen have all seen higher salary increases this year compared with the 2003 survey.

  • Buyers, senior quantity surveyors, contract surveyors, assistant surveyors, site agents and sub agents have seen a smaller salary increase this year compared with last.

  • Site agents based in the West Midlands saw their salaries increase dramatically – by 18.1%.