Shaky foundations

11 September 2014 | Michelle Long

Michelle LongAs the economy recovers and the government strives to help SMEs through various means, buyers in the construction industry are actively seeking to engage with new suppliers.

Public sector frameworks are enjoying positive outcomes – main contractors are vying for contracts as public money filters down providing a much-needed boost to the construction industry and economy as a whole.

Yet many procurement professionals with their ear to the ground are predicting not only a bottleneck of materials and goods, but also of skilled labour.

Presently the shortage of good quality, skilled labour isn’t causing too much of a problem but it is highly likely as our economy recovers and demand increases there will not be enough bricklayers, joiners, plasterers and so on to go around.

Scratch beneath the surface and it is easy to understand why. Since 2008 many of our skilled tradesmen have had to find alternative ways to make a living. Furthermore many school leavers who may have followed 
in their fathers’ (or mothers’) footsteps have been deterred.

So what happens now? Only a few years ago they were riding on the crest of a buoyant economy, so surely they can jump back on board? But the truth is it’s not so easy. With the introduction of Construction Skills Certificate Scheme (CSCS) cards, which provide proof individuals working on sites have the necessary training and qualifications, people are not certified to return to site. In addition, contractors all over the country are demanding that ‘unskilled cards’ be phased out and all trades must have a card relevant to their skill level. But in the real world even good quality trades are not qualified to NVQ level two, meaning when tradesmen want to return to the building trade they are – pardon the pun - hitting a brick wall. There are skill assessment centres as an alternative but they are expensive and extremely difficult to access.

They could be assessed on site for an NVQ, but they aren’t allowed on without a CSCS card.

Moving further up the supply chain there are more complex obstacles. Small specialist trades and sub-contractors have struggled during the recession and have seen their income reduce significantly. A fair percentage have lost their Construction Industry Scheme gross payment status, a necessity to become an approved supplier to a main contractor.

Applications to the tax office are taking months to be processed, with many applications being rejected with little explanation and no feedback. Smaller suppliers have complained they have not been able to accept contracts solely due to this.

What is the answer? When we are developing our procurement strategies we need to factor in these risks. In order for our projects to be successful we need to identify, engage with, and support new suppliers.

Maybe the answer lays in re-engaging with past trade suppliers and guiding them back into the arena. ISO9001, sustainability, changes in legislation, improvement of health and safety are all positive moves.

Yet we have to ensure we do not leave behind the very people we rely on to physically bring our projects to life, or in the not too distant 
future we may be paying the price.

☛ Michelle Long is a strategic buyer at Samuel Construction

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