Something miraculous occurred this week. The dirty, smelly, low-status construction industry suddenly became the year's hottest career option.
Or, as The Sunday Telegraph put it: "Plumbing is the new accountancy." This remarkable reversal of the industry's grubby image began when we revealed how George Brumwell and his colleagues at the other construction unions pulled off a landmark pay deal at Heathrow: to repeat, skilled workers on Terminal 5 will earn a cool £55,000 (see our interview with Brumwell on page 28 for more on that). Wow. Electricians will claim even more, perhaps £75,000. All week, Building has been deluged with calls from the likes of surveyors and (oh, the irony) IT consultants, eager to discuss their career plans. One electrician in Torquay told us he was all set to move to London: shades of Dick Whittington.

Meanwhile, the papers have been full of stories of City bankers swapping Boss suits for boiler suits after it was reported that plumbers earned more than £100,000 a year. Maybe. But one rueful tradesman pointed out that he'd never known anyone earn that honestly. And not all graduates will cope with the physical side of plumbing. But with 10,000 redundancies forecast in the City in 2003, some will take the plunger. Welcome to the era of Tarquin Loadsamoney-Smythe.

These shifting perceptions can be traced back to the Construction Industry Training Board's bold advertising campaign of 2001 – "Mark did a lot of [brick] laying in Ibiza" and all that – which enticed hundreds of school-leavers into applying for apprenticeships. After the latest pay stories, their younger siblings may reconsider the wisdom of going £21,000 in debt to study the iconography of Home and Away at the University of Cleethorpes. Better to earn £55,000 a year as a chippie, than first-class honours and £4 an hour in the fries department of the local burger bar.

That said, the Heathrow deal and Oxbridge plumbers will do nothing to ameliorate London's shortage of electricians, exacerbated by the start of T5, the Tube upgrade and Wembley stadium. Talk of £75,000 deals is making M&E contractors nervous about offering clients guaranteed prices for fear that spiralling wage settlements will obliterate their margins. Nor will the workers' windfalls solve the deepening recruitment crisis among professionals. Indeed, some youngsters swapping degrees for dungarees may have otherwise chosen quantity surveying.

A draft industry report entitled Construction Under Threat warns that building and civil engineering degrees may be extinct within a decade. A little alarmist, perhaps, but the truth is such courses hold few attractions for 18 year olds (see news). Equally worrying is the disclosure that only 8% of applicants are women – a problem for consultancies whose professional workforce is 92% male, as a landmark Construction Industry Council study reveals (pages 22-25). No wonder CITB chairman Sir Michael Latham is calling on the strategic forum to prioritise education (page 33). But Latham's best idea is to call up the men in big red glasses for another CITB advertising blitz, this time starring services engineers. It will be an even harder sell than before and, as the past week has shown, such a campaign stands most chance of success if the rewards of a given career can be quantified in bundles of big green ones. But, then again, that's what everyone said last time.