The continuing skills shortage means that staff at all levels are in a position of power, well aware of their value and driving a hard bargain. Companies want people with proven expertise – second jobbers with sufficient experience to run projects straight away. This is a shift from previous years, when companies chose younger staff whom they could mould. But the thirtysomething shortage means that graduates are still enjoying rises and are taking on the responsibilities – and pay – of those elusive second jobbers.
The rises are a cause for concern, says Launce Morgan, chairman of the RICS construction faculty. "It is a concern for the profession that salaries are exceeding the general rise in fees and construction income," he explains. "These could be seen as warning signs of a return to the boom and bust culture of the early 1990s." He warns that if these rises continue, it will hamper UK construction's ability to be competitive and could destabilise the industry.
"If the wage demands are becoming unrealistic, clients will ultimately find alternatives to our services," he says.
Morgan is particularly concerned by the situation in surveying, which is once again where the biggest money is. A countrywide shortage of surveyors, especially quantity surveyors, means that pay is climbing steeply in some categories, and all levels are in demand, with average rises of between 6% and 8.8%.
These may be warning signs of a return to the boom and bust of the early 1990s
Launce Morgan, RICS construction faculty
"There's a major shortage," says Laura Robinson, a Hays Montrose recruitment consultant based in East Anglia. "We need another 100 in the Norfolk region alone. Graduates are now demanding £20-25,000 – and they're getting it. They also want things like a car, medical services, a good pension; companies have to offer the whole package. Experienced QSs are also demanding very high salaries and employers simply have to pay them because they need the staff." Many QSs are landing pay rises simply to keep them in their jobs. Robinson says: "People aren't moving from companies because the companies are upping their conditions in order to keep them – so when someone does decide to move, they get snapped up very quickly."
Many of those who missed out on pay rises last year are now catching up with their colleagues. Building surveyors got big rises last year, helping them reach the pay levels of their QS counterparts, but this year the QSs are pulling ahead again. In architecture, experienced CAD technicians, who last year suffered from a backlash against on-screen design in favour of hand drawing, have seen the sector's biggest overall rise of 9%. Bridge, geotechnical and water engineers lined their pockets last year but now infrastructure and structural specialists have regained ground.
The structural and infrastructure specialists' rises are thanks to PFI-related health and education projects, according to Nelson Ogunshakin, chief executive of the Association of Consulting Engineers. Graduate engineers are in a similar position. Their pay is still rising, fuelled by the chronic shortage of engineers. Ogunshakin is concerned that this will worsen as some universities close their engineering departments. "The industry is in a chronic state regarding the number of graduates. The number of engineering courses that have closed down recently is truly alarming. Much more needs to be done to make the industry attractive to young people."
And with the City expected to pick up in the next few months, he expects graduate recruitment to become even harder. "Engineering companies are still competing with the City and, with the downturn in the City bottoming out, we are going to see this sector pick up again.
We need to be conscious of the investment, equity and corporate finance markets creating renewed competition for the brightest graduates. Consultancy companies need to make sure they are not left behind."
Architects are the only consultants not worrying about how to afford the wage bill for their younger employees – experienced staff are catching up with last year's graduate pay rises, while graduate pay has hardly changed. Pay for most roles is rising steadily in most of the country but the South-east and South-west seem to be cooling off, with salaries at all levels remaining stable or dropping slightly – the market in these regions is adjusting after last year's over-inflation.