The middle classes have been getting excited about site workers earning £55,000 – some have even talked about a career change. Truth is, they wouldn't survive the day …
When Building broke the story about site workers at Heathrow's Terminal 5 earning wages of £55,000, the revelation generated considerable interest among the professional classes. A number of them – including a computer consultant – phoned Building requesting information on retraining for a construction craft. If the figures for salary rates prove correct, then these wage rates could attract a totally different type of person into the building trades.

But I would like to give prospective entrants a few words of warning. Many of them will picture themselves among square-jawed yeoman, carving pew ends for Westminster Abbey in cosy workshops where the air is redolent with the smell of cedar and pine needles. When they turn up for their first day on site at T5 they will find that a large part of a craftsperson's time on the job is spent as a donkey.

The job will be more physically exhausting than anything they will have done before. Just wearing the boots, gloves and waterproof clothing is wearisome in the extreme. Just wearing a hard hat all day can be oppressive, whatever the bloke out of the Village People may say. They will then carry 8 × 4 sheets of Douglas fir plywood (this dates me, I know, but steel shutters are even heavier) to make concrete formwork.

Most kinds of shuttering involves using Acrow props. We used to have a saying on site: the devil couldn't be everywhere, so he invented Acrows. They're always covered in a uniquely dirty mixture of rust and grease that makes handling them a spectacularly unpleasant experience. The thread is always rusted solid and the pins vanish the instant they appear on site, to be replaced with a metre-long length of rebar, the sharpened end nicely at eye level.

Then there are the facilities. When Jonathan Meades conducted a mock restaurant review of a site canteen for Building's Christmas issue, he described it as "extravagantly, hyperbolically sordid". Actually, it didn't look too bad; and the fact is that it's always a plus to have a canteen. Only large sites have any sort of food available at all, good or bad. A more usual scenario is for to arrive on a blasted heath to find that you have to make a fire to boil a kettle. In any case, it is necessary to spend years eating in greasy cafes to develop a proper builder's bum. And, at the other end of things, there are still many sites with toilet facilities that wouldn't be out of place in the third world.

Many subbies have the same view of staff management as the Japanese submarine fleet commander who shouted: ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves.’ Not a milieu for the sensitive

What's more, the slaughter of the innocents continues; do our putative middle-class applicants really want to join an industry where they are five times as likely to be killed or maimed as the average Briton?

Then there are the employment conditions. Most tradespeople are self-employed. This means they have little chance of getting holidays or sick pay, pension rights, a career path or job security. The industry achieved a hire-and-fire philosophy for the crafts well before the rest of the country caught up with it.

Labour relations in the industry have always been poor. Most craftspeople carry out work for small and medium-sized subcontractors. Many of these fight to exist in a cut-throat environment, and the welfare of their tradespeople is not often a priority, to say the least. In fact, many subbies would eat their grannies, once it had been proved to their satisfaction that they couldn't sell them. And many have the same view of staff management as the Japanese submarine fleet commander who shouted: "The beatings will continue until morale improves." Not a milieu for the sensitive.

If Laing O'Rourke really has reached an agreement that gives the construction trades the figures quoted, this raises a number of questions. Will the company directly employ all the labour on site? If not, subcontractors, many of whom have not yet been chosen, will pay the wage rates they think appropriate. Laing O'Rourke cannot tell subcontractors what to pay. If there is a major slump in the next year, as seems possible, will these rates of pay ever see the light of day? Even if these rates are paid to a small number at Heathrow, will this really have any effect on the rest of the industry?

A Building news item (21 February, page 15) says that the national wage rate for construction craftspeople is £7.30 an hour, which would give an annual salary of just over £15,000. The disparity between £15,000 and £55,000 should serve as a reality check for our middle-class aspirants.

Another small inconsistency: Building has reported that a number of asylum seekers will be given jobs at Heathrow. It has also told us that employees on airport jobs will have to prove five years' continuous employment. How will that be possible for someone who entered the country clinging to the bottom of a train? And if it is possible, what will be the reaction of other groups of workers who've been refused security clearance?

The people hoping to retrain in the construction crafts are chasing the crock of gold at the end of a rainbow. Our middle-class tradesperson hoping to find work at £55,000 a year is likely to be disappointed. The cosy William Morris view of the building crafts was never true. If large numbers of tradesmen are paid £55,000 a year, I will eat my hat.