Business Essentials: 'They don't make builders any more'

North-east construction firm Bowey Homes is struggling to find skilled joiners and bricklayers, finds Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

Bowey Homes was started in 1907 and is a third-generation family firm operating in and around the North-east. It specialises in two- to four- bedroom homes in urban and rural locations.

Currently, it has 10 developments under way in locations ranging from the picturesque villages of Longhoughton and Shil- bottle in Northumberland, to regeneration sites in Consett, County Durham.

It employs 35 bricklayers and 16 skilled joiners at the moment, who operate throughout Bowey's sites. In addition, it employs seven apprentices on its training programme. But while finding labourers is not a big problem, finding skilled workers is.

Bowey has tried to combat the skills shortage by hiring foreign labour. "While this works well in getting the work done, we would prefer to bring as many jobs as possible to the North-east's population," says Ms Bowey.

Another tactic has been to take on full-time workers at the company. "The normal practice in this industry is to use sub-contract labour," she explains. "But we felt that offering to employ people directly would help attract them because it means you get all the perks that go with working for a company, like a higher base rate and good benefits."

She adds: "Each development aims to combine traditional craftsmanship with contemporary materials. By using our own people, we can guarantee this high quality. It's not a numbers game for us - we want dedicated staff who are good at what they do."

Some of Bowey Homes' employees, however, are reluctant to work a full 39- hour week. '"The norm is for them to go home early on a Friday, and that's a real problem for us. We've introduced a bonus based on attendance, which seems to work quite well, but we'd like more advice on not only attracting people in the first place, but ensuring they work a full week."

Bowey is particularly concerned about the skills shortage because some of its joiners, bricklayers and other craftspeople are retiring. "It's a pressing issue."


Victoria Gill, learning, training and development adviser, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

"Bowey is not alone in facing skills shortages. A recent CIPD survey found that 85 per cent of employers have recruitment problems.

"This is likely to be a long-term issue and Bowey must work with others in the sector to articulate its needs and encourage new entrants.

"Hull College is one example of a Centre of Vocational Excellence that is undertaking projects to broaden participation in its construction centre. It is using outreach facilities in deprived areas and taster courses for young people in summer schools. Given its strong presence in the North- east, and reputation in the construction industry, Bowey is well placed to work with local education providers to develop such initiatives.

"In the short term, Bowey must continue to promote itself as an organisation dedicated to its staff. Offering flexible working may be one way of demonstrating this.

"The other option is to 'upskill' existing employees. Appointing people who have the potential to grow, and giving them the appropriate support, would be a positive way of tackling skills shortages."

Rachel Hogarth, training adviser, CITB-ConstructionSkills

"Unfortunately, there aren't any quick-fix solutions to this problem. Taking on young apprentices brings many benefits, but it is also worth considering adult apprentices and career changers who have transferable skills.

"Labourers could also be considered for career development opportunities. Investing in the skills of existing staff can bring the added advantages of increased loyalty and motivation.

"In addition, Bowey should look at having a more diverse workforce. An increasing number of females and people from ethnic-minority backgrounds are being attracted to our industry at all levels, and we know that some women in particular are struggling to find employment.

"On the issue of working hours, contracts of employment should clearly define expectations. The company should involve its workers in discussions to help find a mutually acceptable solution."

Pamela Lindsay-Dunn, regional manager, Hays Construction & Property (recruitment consultancy)

"Companies must consider all recruitment options in today's competitive market. Skilled people are at a premium, and by limiting yourself to a particular employment strategy, you could be excluding a viable workforce.

"Bowey's desire to employ local candidates is praiseworthy, but it should also look outside the region. Companies are not going to have much recruitment success if they exclusively market themselves in a severely limited pool of candidates.

"Bowey should also look at temporary as well as permanent solutions. Not too long ago, there was a stigma attached to temporary recruitment. However, because of the influx into the industry of many qualified and skilled candidates, sub-contract work has taken on an entirely different connotation.

"There is a new-found sense of confidence in the services that temporary professionals provide, and companies are starting to realise that utilising this option can offer them an economic advantage over their competitors."