A barren landscape of deskilled workers awaits us at the end of this downturn if we continue to neglect or leapfrog the specialist subcontractor, says Richard Piggott

It seems as though the world has been riding the current economic climate forever. One minute there’s positive data, the next it’s back to the doom and gloom. And Europe’s inability to deal with its sovereign debt crisis has clearly added greatly to the economic uncertainty. Across the building industry, construction firms, whether they’re main contractors or small subcontractors, have been doing whatever they can to survive - that’s natural. But as a small specialist subcontractor there’s something that’s worrying me, something that’s threatening the long-term well being of the industry and all specialists - and it’s not late payment, serious though that is.

I fear that the specialist knowledge base and skills are in danger of disappearing, or at least being put in dangerously short supply in the future. Why? Because we’re increasingly seeing main contractors taking more specialist services in-house rather than using specialist subcontractors. Clearly this move towards vertical integration is an attempt by the main contractors to save costs and I can’t blame them. However, if the trend continues it could end up harming the entire industry.

On 9 November 2011, the London Evening Standard featured the story of some 1,500 union-led electricians and construction workers who staged a noisy protest in London over pay and the deskilling of the industry. The protesting “construction workers are angry about the policies of a group of construction firms,” it ran, “which, they say, are driving down pay and deskilling workers in the industry. This makes their action the nearest we’ve come in all the protests to a traditional union-led action”.

So what was behind the protest? First, over half of construction apprentices are employed by SMEs. They learn their trade within a firm that’s an expert in a particular specialist field, (in our case it’s stone masonry in new build and restoration). The environment in which these apprentices learn their trade is knowledge-based, so the apprentices logically become real specialists too. However, if specialist skills are only provided by main contractors rather than specialist subcontractors, I believe we’ll find that the main contractors won’t have the capacity to handle or train a true specialist work force, in the medium to longer term.

If specialist services are all taken in-house, in the longer term there won’t be the same level of experience and skill that has been built up over the years by specialist subcontractors

For instance, it is unlikely that, in the long run, main contractors will be able to possess and maintain diverse specialist knowledge and skills at a high level that will meet client needs. And it is doubtful that they’ll be able to train apprentices with the same personal approach a specialist subcontractor can. So if specialist services are all taken in-house, in the longer term there won’t be the same level of experience and skill that has been built up over the years by specialist subcontractors.

In a quiet market it is certainly possible for a main contractor to recruit senior in-house specialists who’ll deliver jobs to a high standard. But the knock-on effect of this is that when the market comes back, as it will, there won’t be an adequate supply chain because too many specialist subcontractors will have gone out of business and their knowledge base dispersed, either to other companies or, worse still, lost to the industry forever. And there won’t be a skilled workforce because the juniors that the specialists used to train won’t be there either. This will drive up prices for the delivery of specialist services and could even slow down a full recovery for the industry.

If we don’t invest in specialist skills there’ll eventually be problems for us all. Specialist skills are invaluable in delivering high-quality projects. We are in uncertain times, but more forward thinking is required to safeguard the industry and fend off future problems that are, to many, foreseeable and avoidable. Work has traditionally been outsourced to specialist subcontractors because we have a proven track record, the knowledge base, established supply chain and the skills.

Richard Piggott is business development manager at Szerelmey