In the slump of the early 1990s, more than 500,000 workers were dumped, and most never came back when things picked up. This was the last generation of fully trained quality tradespeople. The people who stayed were forced to scratch a living. An item in Building on 19 March 1993 said: "Savage competition for jobs has forced building workers' pay as low as £100 a week … John Watts, the chief executive of Wiltshire, hit out at the deplorable wage levels: 'After training for three years, a skilled craftsman is getting £160 a week … The right lads aren't coming into the industry'."
The industry has still not recovered from the recession of the 1990s and is paying the price for not attracting and keeping the "right lads". During the early and late 1990s, employers became used to a situation in which skilled people were stored on a convenient shelf. They could be taken down when needed, and replaced once they had served their purpose. One phone call could provide 20 bricklayers to start the following morning.
Many managers came to think that an abundance of skilled, cheap and instantly available labour was the natural state of affairs. In truth, it was a completely abnormal situation. And it was a disaster for training. Firms thought they didn't need to train, and school leavers were not going to spend years learning a skill if, at the end of it, they were going to be treated in this way.
The situation at the moment is more balanced than it was 10 years ago. But you would think that if there really were large-scale labour shortages, employers would be working flat out to make the industry more attractive to recruits, and that there would be serious efforts going into training. But are these things happening?
The skills deficit is supposed to be most severe in the South-east. Over the past three months I have monitored the jobs advertised in the London Evening Standard, which is supposed to be the construction newspaper for London. The job advertisements for carpenters on a Wednesday, the specialist construction day, varied between three and 10. This was for an area covering roughly 10 million people.
Over the same three months, the Employment Service computer advertised between 13 and 27 jobs a week for carpenters, for an area covering most of the South-east – which is more than 15 million people. And many a number of these were for joke jobs, offering £170 a week for 45 hours work – less than the minimum wage. So, if there really are large numbers of unfilled jobs, where are they advertised? The industry may not have as much skilled labour available as it had in the past; but is there really a substantial shortfall?
The so-called skills shortage has been used as a justification for the use of illegal asylum seekers and foreign labour on site. Building's exposés have highlighted the large numbers of foreign workers used on sites in the South-east and the use of illegal immigrant labour.
The industry has never wanted to pay for high-quality training and with the influx of large numbers of foreign labourers, it has turned its back on training altogether. We have created a monster that feeds on imported cheap labour
A recent news item in Building (24 March, page 11) reported that a labour agency was importing 3000 Romanian workers, and that they were to be given CSCS cards before they left Romania. Large numbers of British firms, many of them household names, carry out their manufacturing in the Far East. This gives them access to an educated, trained, compliant and cheap workforce. If it was physically possible, the construction industry would have buildings constructed in the Far East and then shipped back to this country. But since the buildings cannot be sent to the compliant cheap workforce, then the compliant cheap workforce must be brought to the buildings – and the justification for this is a skills shortage.
In fact, the only real shortage is of people who are prepared to work for the wages the industry pays, and who are prepared to put up with the abysmal conditions on site most skilled workers still have to put up with. After presiding over a collapse in the training system in this country, the CITB has apparently decided to remedy the situation by giving qualifications to people in Romania. This may work in the short term, but how is it possible to attract high-calibre people to spend years training in the construction crafts when they see that they could be replaced overnight by cheaper foreign labour?
The industry has never wanted to pay for high-quality training and with the influx of foreign labourers, it has turned its back on training altogether. We seem to have created a monster in the construction industry that needs to be fed on imported cheap labour, while our own potential workforce chooses to work in other industries.
John Smith is a former crafts lecturer and site worker.