What are the industry prospects for tradespeople?

Tradesman on the roof with a Blue background

Go back a decade or so, and there was such a shortage of tradespeople that some city brokers decided to retrain as plumbers and electricians, as they could earn more money doing that than trading on the financial markets. Getting someone to come to your home in the event of a leak or similar emergency was like pulling teeth back then.

In any sector, the rules of supply and demand influence what can be charged and what wages are paid. In the early noughties, most tradespeople were earning money hand over fist, as there were so few of them. Once newly trained tradespeople flooded the sector, there was a greater supply, which saw their earning power drop.

In the early Covid lockdowns, tradespeople could only go into people’s houses to deal with emergencies; cosmetic and development work wasn’t allowed to go ahead. The furlough scheme supported workers in the industry in the interim, and once everything was allowed to open up again, the supply and demand factor kicked in. In this scenario, it wasn’t that there was a severe lack in the supply of tradespeople, but simply that the sheer demand for their skills shot through the roof.

During lockdown, many people made plans to extend their properties (as opposed to moving) and/or to create home offices that could accommodate remote working. Tradespeople’s diaries were booked up for months on end.

Now that more time has passed and trade has likely caught up with this backlog, what does the sector look like?

According to Indeed, the popular job board, the average pay for a tradesperson is £27, 350 per annum. This isn’t a bad wage, but it’s not the £50,000 plus that some tradespeople were raking in when demand was high in the noughties. Being semi-skilled, like a labourer, doesn’t pay as well as someone who has trained in a particular discipline, e.g. gas engineers, bricklayers, etc.

It also makes a difference which projects you choose to work on. For instance, the wages listed above are commonly for work in the private domain. When working on the construction of new houses, or in the commercial sector, wages rise dramatically. The average salary for a construction worker, for example, is £45,774, according to data.

Of course, there’s a limit to what private or commercial customers will pay, even if demand is high, and rising costs and a shortage of materials is having an impact. These price rises are commonly passed on to the client, but tradespeople have to also remain conscious of affordability, as their customers’ own wages will be feeling the squeeze; finding a balance could see a reduction in the tradesperson’s margins.

Another issue is the lack of young blood coming into the sector. As older tradespeople retire, they’re not being replaced at the other end by school leavers, which is creating a skills gap that widens year on year. The ONS reported that there were 38,000 unfilled vacancies across the four quarters of 2021, which is the highest figure reported since their records began twenty years ago.

That’s good news in one way for the tradespeople left in the industry, as a lack of bodies in the sector will push wages up once again. However, this particular problem needs to be addressed now; though these workers will enjoy their value during their career, once they come to retire, there will literally be no one left to carry the torch, so to speak.

The same problem is playing out in other industries, such as distribution. Manual labour is not attractive to school leavers today, who have so many more career choices than perhaps their parents did. If you were a youngster, would you want to get your hands dirty and do back-breaking work when you could design video games or become a YouTube influencer to earn your living?

Iain Parker, partner at Alinea Consulting, says this, ‘People are beginning to say: Look, this is just crazy, we can’t carry on like this. We must bring more people in from the bottom as it’s not sustainable to keep increasing people’s wages and fighting each other for them.’

Wages across all sectors in the UK are continually being devalued as the cost of living rises and rises. Though high wages can’t be underpinned for long, without a commitment to decent wages, there definitely won’t be anyone coming into the industry, of any age.