Reviving the Great British Trades

In honour of Saint George’s Day this past weekend, we acknowledge the long tradition of stellar British tradesmen and women who excel in their skills and craftsmanship. This important sector includes plumbers, builders, electricians, engineers, carpenters, stonemasons and metal workers where skills are gained through applied experience on the job. No quick internet course could replace this accumulated knowledge and this is something to be very, very proud of. Ernie the Bulldog (and DAD mascot) salutes you!

Sometime in the distant past, legend has it that the population of a city was in the grip of terror, courtesy of a ferocious dragon. To appease the dragon’s insatiable appetite, the people of the city offered it two lambs per day. As the supply of lambs began to dwindle, the people turned to another source of protein to supplement the dragon’s diet — humans.

The unfortunate victims were selected through a lottery and would make their last journey in the grim assurance that their families would be well compensated for the loss. Then came the fateful day when a princess was selected in this macabre lottery to become the next gourmet meal for the ravenous dragon. At this point, a hero entered the frame, rescuing the princess from doom with a deft stoke of his sword to the dragon’s heart and liberating the people of the city from the terror they had endured. The hero was Saint George — he was clearly the man in the right time and place, with the right skills — armed with the right tools for the job.

A sector in decline

The current picture reflects a state of decline in this sector, with a lack of skilled British talent available to slay the household dragons of defunct plumbing, faulty electrics and heating systems which conveniently fail as the winter chill sets in. According to the National Careers Service, employers in this sector find it difficult to recruit the right people with the right skills, reporting two fifths of vacancies as hard to fill. They also report this sector as being overwhelmingly male-dominated, with men outnumbering women by around nine to one.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) confirms these challenging trends, reporting the extent of the skills shortage in this sector. In their figures for unfilled vacancies across all sectors in the UK is 23%, while in the skilled trades sector, the figure stands at a staggering 42%. According to ONS predictions, this downward trend is set to continue, from an estimated total of just under 1,120,000 tradespeople working in the sector in 2016 to 1,108,000 tradespeople by 2020.

The scarcity of talent in these sectors is not only a concern for homeowners, it also holds wider repercussions for the construction industry and by extension — the economy. The construction industry generates around 7% of GDP and has experienced a slowdown which has led to the halting of major construction projects and bidding opportunities being turned down.

As a result, employers in the construction industry have sought talent overseas, incentivising skilled bricklayers with payments of £1,000 per week; twice the normal amount which bricklayers typically earn. The increased demand for skilled tradesmen has mainly been supplied from Eastern European countries, where skilled trades are highly represented. However, since 2007, the upsurge in Eastern European economies has led to increased wages in those countries, lessening the incentive for overseas tradesmen to come to the UK for work.

Pay increases due to skills shortages are reflected throughout the sector, particularly for specialised skills such as plumbing and carpentry. The plumbing profession has received the most notable headlines in this respect, with plumbers potentially earning up to £100,000 a year, due to increased demand in the context of limited supply.

The need to boost apprenticeships

One of the key reasons for the shortage in skilled trades is the decline in apprenticeship opportunities. Apprenticeships were the traditional means of training for skilled trades, where an apprentice learned the skills of their job over a number of years under the instruction and guidance of an established tradesman.

Apprenticeships have a long and varied history, originating in the Middle Ages from the custom of upper-class families sending their children away to live with host families. By the Tudor period, this practice had developed into an indentureship system, where a contract was drawn between the ‘servant’ and the ‘master’ — for the master to personally teach the servant in the relevant trade, while taking responsibility for the servant’s board and lodging.

Apprenticeships were first formally recognised in the UK in 1563, with the introduction of the Statute of Artificers. This law set minimum standards for apprenticeships in the areas of the maximum number of years for apprenticeships and the limit in numbers of apprentices a master could have at one time. By the nineteenth century, apprenticeships declined as the factory system expanded.

Apprenticeships enjoyed renewed popularity from the early part of the 20th century, with a particular focus on the skilled trades. This upward trend continued through the two World Wars, reaching a peak in the 1960s, with a third of boys leaving school to become apprentices. However, by the 1960s, the strain on the system had become apparent, with criticisms from a Royal Commission on the issue pointing out that apprenticeships were unresponsive to industry needs and too focused on the time which apprentices served. These concerns were eventually realised in the form of dwindling numbers, with half as many employees in apprenticeships in 1995 than there were in 1979.

Modern Apprenticeships were introduced across all sectors in 1993 as a means to tackle the decline. This initiative ensured that apprentices would count as employees and would be paid a wage. In addition, the emphasis was placed on the qualification the apprentice would gain, as opposed to the amount of time the apprenticeship took to complete. The scheme was taken up by small organisations in the main and later on, smaller firms received financial incentives to take on apprentices. The system has led to mixed results and still needs refining, due to finding the right ways to fund it.

Opportunities for renaissance

Yet still, there remains a great deal of untapped potential in the UK, recognised by recent government calls for the construction industry to remove barriers to get more young people to view the skilled trades as an attractive career option. The upside to all of this is that despite the continued shortage of skills, the standards in the skilled trades sector are consistently high with a range of established trades associations ensuring quality, support and ongoing training for their members. The Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors (APHC), active since 1925 works with the government to maintain excellent standards and represents their members’ interests. They have recently supported a House of Lords report to promote apprenticeships as an alternative to higher education in schools.

The trade bodies representing the Electrical industry are also hopeful for positive change. The Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) founded in 1901, has laid out future plans for the industry, known as the 2021 Vision. This Vision identifies opportunities in the form of improving energy efficiency for the direct benefit of commercial and domestic customers. Sustainability will continue to be a key issue, with heating and electrical systems being integrated with the systems dealt with by other trades, such as plumbing.

As homes and businesses become more automated, skilled trades will have to adapt as integrated technology becomes the norm. While this may be a challenge to the traditional view of skilled trades, it presents a huge opportunity for providing creative solutions. The need for creative solutions could be fuelled in part by the rise in independent traders. As a result of the recession the number of skilled tradespeople working as one man bands or in smaller companies has risen dramatically, offering increasingly personalised and specialist services to their customers.

Developments in technology are key factors, driving the future of skilled trades. Wireless technology, energy efficient solutions, smart meters and integrated home systems represent the ‘dragons’ which a declining UK industry must face head on. However, in the spirit of Saint George, this is a nation characterised by resilience, adaptability and the creative drive to turn threats into opportunities.