The industry has struggled from a shortage of professionals for ten years. Now with University fees and student debt going through the roof, applications to construction degrees are set to go into freefall.
Pity the poor graduate. The government’s planned top-up fees will mean that students could soon leave university with £21,000 worth of debt. This is very bad news for the building industry, which is currently suffering from a dearth of construction professionals.

And the situation is set to get worse. A new report sponsored by the Construction Industry Training Board says the number of applications to construction degrees is in steep decline. The Rethinking Construction Education study says that at the current rate of decline, there will be no construction student entering university by 2012.

The top-up fees will make the CITB’s job of attracting people into construction degrees even harder. Although salaries of construction professionals are decent compared with those of, say, a teacher or firefighter, they won’t make much of a dent on a hefty student loan.

According to last year’s Building salary survey, a 25-year-old engineer in London earns £26,000, while a 27-year-old contract quantity surveyor takes home no more than £32,000. Would-be QSs will have quickly worked out that after making loan repayments there will be little money left to buy a home or, heaven forbid, raise a family. Either that, or they’ll spend the rest of their lives paying it off.

It’s ironic, then, that construction salaries are the talk of the town. Following the news in last week’s Building that skilled workers are set to earn £55,000 a year at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, people all over the country have been wondering aloud how long it would take to retrain as a chippie or plumber.

Suddenly a good, old-fashioned apprenticeship looks like an incredibly shrewd career move. Trainee electricians, for example, will be paid during their four-year vocational education and – if M&E union Amicus negotiates a similar deal for its members to the one enjoyed by T5 workers – could earn themselves upwards of £75,000 when qualified.

Facing this kind of statistic, the CITB will have a hard job enticing school-leavers into lecture theatres rather than trades. As the Rethinking Construction Education report told us this week, there are a number of possible solutions, including multidisciplinary accreditation and the provision of a high-profile general construction qualification linked to a fast-track career structure.

Without an increase in applicants, the report warns, the UK could lose the building and construction teaching, educational and research capabilities that are so highly regarded around the world. Instead, the industry would have to rely on importing expensive skills from foreign-owned construction enterprises. Therein lies another irony as, also this week, a report from the CIC and DTI revealed that the work of engineers, surveyors, architects and other consultants contributes 1.4% of the UK’s GDP more than the fashion, music, film and fashion industries combined.

This shows how crucial construction professionals are to the UK. Perhaps students will be attracted to degree places when the current shortage forces up the salaries of the QSs and engineers to the same levels as the plumbers, electricians and chippies. Market forces could eventually save our university courses.