Employers across the country complain of a skills shortage, but has it hit some regions more than others? And could we be experiencing the effects of a North-South divide? Some researchers intend to find out …

Skill needs vary dramatically from region to region, which means that training initiatives have to take into account the particular features of local labour markets. But because these markets are constantly changing there needs to be accurate and up-to-date research into labour mobility within the construction industry. Lee Bryer, research analyst at CITB-ConstructionSkills, explains: “It might be the case that money is being spent in the North-east to increase the number of bricklayers, but a significant proportion of these workers are then heading south to work.” Bryer says few labour and skill forecasting models used in construction take into full account the role of labour flows.

Research into labour mobility

Last year, CITB-ConstructionSkills teamed up with the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) and the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), to commission research into the skill levels and occupational mobility of the workforce in the London and South-east. Published in January 2004, the research found that 12% of the workforce in the area commuted into the region to work but lived outside, and a further 20% lived outside the region and had temporary accommodation in the South-east (see box, below).

A commuting workforce

John Course, area manager for CITB-ConstructionSkills in the southern counties, says the research demonstrates the high degree of mobility among construction workers: “Of course, we’ve known for many years that the South-east has relied on the inward migration of labour, but now we have some sense of the quantities involved.”

For Course, the high level of workers who commute to the area could be indicative of wider concerns in the South-east such as the lack of affordable housing in the region. “You have to ask why these workers don’t live in the area and, I imagine in many cases, it’s because of the expense,” he says.

The report could also imply that other regions are losing out to the South-east because pay rates are higher than elsewhere in the country.

But as Mike Lloyd, recruitment consultant at Hays Montrose, says the overall mobility of construction’s workforce is likely to present a more complex picture than simply the North leaking labour to the South. “It is certainly the case that senior construction professionals, who are based in large regional cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, have seen their salaries catch up with London salaries. In many the cases, the differentiation is negligible.”

A regional boom

According to Lloyd, the reason regional salaries have increased is because of increased workload. He says, "The increase in construction activity across the regions means that craftsmen are in demand. So I would be surprised if say plasterers from Manchester were travelling to work in London – they could pretty much name their price anywhere."

True enough, plasterers seem to be a rare breed all over the country and in Wales they are particularly so. The CITB-ConstructionSkills’ survey on skills need found that 24% of employers in Wales had reported a shortage of plasterers.

Mike Bialyj, area manager for CITB-ConstructionSkills Wales, says: “It shows how important it is for us to encourage local firms to take on apprentices. But it’s not easy as the vast majority of construction companies in Wales employ fewer than 10 people. It’s a highly fragmented industry,” he says.

Engaging small firms

Fragmentation is a trend that applies to the construction industry at a national level and the challenge to engage small firms in training remains. Course says: “We’re trying to crack the problem of increasing training provision further down the supply chain and are co-ordinating placements that involve the main contractor and their suppliers. About 80% of companies report skill shortages but only 20% offer training. So there’s tremendous scope for the industry to help itself.”

Workers on the move

The Workforce Mobility and Skills survey of London and the South-east reported the following:

  • 44% of the construction workforce is originally from outside the region.

  • Of workers in London, 60% are from outside the capital

  • 11% of workers interviewed were travelling to work from a temporary address.

  • 20% of workers live outside the region and are in temporary accommodation.

  • Just below 50% the workforce claimed to have a skills card – this figure was higher among those on London sites (55%) and was higher among the directly employed (53%) compared with the self-employed (39%).

Employers' Needs Survey 2003

About 500 construction companies drawn from across Great Britain were asked by CITB-ConstructionSkills about workload and recruitment difficulties in October 2003. Here are the main findings:

  • Expectations of future workload were higher than last year, particularly so in the North-west.

  • Nearly 70% said they were experiencing recruitment difficulties (a decrease on the previous year). The craft trades and managers presented the most problems.

  • Filling vacancies in the permanent workforce was more of a problem than finding temporary contract workers.

  • When asked about unfilled vacancies over the past three months, about 20% of companies reported having at least one.

  • About one-third of companies had to refuse a contract because of a shortage of skilled staff.

  • Just under half of companies said they had been able to get the staff required by offering higher wages.

  • Regarding skill levels of their current workforce, companies were mainly satisfied, but skills of new recruits were more of a problem.

  • When filling jobs, about half of respondents said they trained and promoted from within, with just over a third saying they would recruit from other construction companies. Only 14% said they would look to non-construction companies for possible recruits.