You just can't get the staff nowadays: Devastated by recession, Britain's building industry now faces a severe skills shortage as it attempts to exploit the nascent recovery

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The Independent Online
BEN BARRETT, one of the biggest - and, after the recession, one of the last - skilled brickwork contractors in the country, has a problem. It is being forced to consider turning down work - because it cannot find the bricklayers it needs to put in credible bids for contracts.

Despite nearly three million unemployed, and billions of pounds being pumped into the Government's Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), the workers to take advantage of a recovery are not there.

'No one's been training properly,' said Brian Duffy, the Hertfordshire company's industrial relations manager. 'Not the Government, not anyone. At the smallest sign of a recovery we're already seeing a skills shortage - wages going up and all the old problems. What's different this time is that it's happening so quickly. We're barely into a recovery and already there's trouble.'

At Haven Country Classics, in Horncastle, Lincs, there is not so much a skills shortage as a vacuum. The company makes waxed-cotton waterproof hats. It has gone from a turnover of pounds 100,000 to pounds 2.2m in four years. Ninety per cent of its products are exported, and it knows from its full order books that it could do better. 'At a guess, I'd say we're operating at 30 to 40 per cent below capacity,' said Jeffrey Stainton, a partner. 'If we could just get 10 to 15 semi- skilled machinists we could start expanding into China and the Far East.'

The company has spent pounds 3,000 advertising posts in the local press. The Jobcentre displays vacancies, and details are broadcast on the local radio station in an area with unemployment well above the national average. But no one has come forward.

Peter Pexton, former head of the Federation of Brickwork Contractors, said last week: 'The industry is at crisis point. We only need an upward blip of activity and the basic skills - carpentry, bricklaying, plastering - are not there.'

Large contractors said the daily rate for a bricklayer in the south of England had risen by 18 per cent this year to pounds 65 or pounds 70 a day, as contractors vied to take advantage of the recovery. Hourly rates across the UK are up from pounds 6 to pounds 7.50. At the height of the recession some workers were paid as little as pounds 35 a day.

That is part of the problem. Pay was so low that many skilled men quit in disgust. 'People have just left and won't come back,' said Bob McDermott, Ben Barrett's chief estimator. 'Tens of thousands have gone to work in Germany, others have got jobs driving or cabbying. That's warm work, regular work and their wives are pleased they're not out in the rain at all hours.'

For all its problems, the construction industry is one of the few sectors left with a training board and a training levy on employers. But the voluntary tax has not provided the money in the recession needed to educate skilled apprentices - who need at least three years' training. Industry leaders bitterly criticise the TEC quangos - which receive pounds 2.2bn - for failing to plug the funding gap.

Roger Elford, director of training at the Building Employers' Confederation, said the further education colleges the TECs use had been turned into corporations by the Government and had to make a profit. 'They do not want the high cost of spending money on the materials a boy wanting to become a craftsman needs. They prefer hairdressing and business studies courses.'

Between 20 and 40 per cent of the funds a trainer receives is 'output-related' - if the pupil fails, a college or private training company does not get a proportion of the fee. Mr Elford believes that many training companies are awarding National Vocational Qualification certificates to sub-standard students so they can get the output-related bonuses.

Last week, the Department of Employment launched a fraud investigation into allegations that tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money had been spent on 'phantom trainees'.

Dale Campbell-Savours, the Labour MP for Workington, forced the inquiry when he revealed that certificates had been given to people in Cumbria who had never attended a training course.

JHP Training, the private company hired by the Cumbrian TEC, admitted that fraud had taken place but said that it involved former employees.

Building industry managers who have to cope with the shortage of skilled young workers are pessimistic.

'I'd say that we have to get rid of at least five out of 10 new blokes who turn up for work on our sites after a few days,' said Brian Duffy. 'On a big job they can hide for a week, particularly if they come with second-hand tools which makes them look experienced. But in the end it comes out. They can't fake years of experience. They're handymen, not craftsmen.'