In the second of his special columns to mark the 190th anniversary of W.B. Simpson & Sons, managing director Billy Valler considers the state of the labour market and the difficulties of attracting new people to come and work in the tiling sector. This is a problem which has become particularly acute in recent years and threatens the future of tile contracting as a skilled and professional trade.
Last time I was telling you about the difficulties that companies like ours are increasingly having when they try to attract people to work in our industry. I quoted the example of a contract we had with a large London contractor, where we were asked to take on an apprentice as one of the tender conditions. This, we were happy to do and worked on it quite hard for several months, but we struggled to find a candidate who was looking for an apprenticeship.
This example shows there is going to be a problem in the future as the workforce gets older. I know this is an issue that not only affects tiling, but it’s becoming a real concern for us. Over the 40 years I have been in tiling there has been an enormous change in the industry, and one of the changes has been the move away from vocational training, designed to enable people to go into a trade. I think there are several factors behind this. One is the reluctance of the industry to put resources behind training up the next generation. I’m not quite sure what the answer is because I understand it’s a difficult thing to do, when margins are tight and a lot of us genuinely find it difficult to plan for the future because our focus is always on the here and now and getting the current project finished and moving on to the next one.
The opportunity to step back and consider investment decisions for the future is always tricky – and it’s made worse, of course, by the fact that in a tight labour market, there is always a risk that the person that you’ve just invested in is going to leave and move on to another company which is offering a pound or two more per hour.
The other aspect is whether there are sufficiently resourced training opportunities within colleges and other providers, to make apprenticeships attractive. Funding for these is constantly under threat and I know that there is currently a concern about funding being removed from NVQ Level 1 and Level 2 courses in England, providing a real barrier to entry for school leavers who might want to get into tiling.
It’s not that our trade does not hold out the prospect of bringing in a decent wage once trained up and working. We treat our guys well and pay them well. So, once we have got hold of them, they tend to stay. In tiling people are often paid by the square metre and some of our top guys could be earning up to £80,000 a year – more than a plumber or an electrician. But I think unfortunately it’s become a cultural thing, and this is where I’m sure we could do more to promote the trade and the career opportunities it offers. I believe there’s a role for TTA here, through its Training Committee.
The first thing we need to do is make people aware of the opportunities. In order to get into tiling, people have to actually know about the industry and the career paths that it can offer for those who are prepared to work hard. It is striking how many people end up being tilers, who have other family members who are tilers and they can see at first-hand what the trade has to offer.
Once they become aware, they have to be prepared for work that can be uncomfortable and hard, and at times mucky. These are not easy jobs physically. They can be too hot, they can be too cold. It seems to me there is a tendency for youngsters to gravitate towards things that are more comfortable these days.
It’s true that the whole construction industry has an image problem, and it’s probably worse for tiling, which sits in a slightly different place, compared to electrical, gas and plumbing trades for instance. These are governed by more regulation and certification, which tends to give such work a bit of extra kudos with a bit more skill involved – more like engineering jobs.
Tiling or bricklaying or plastering tend to be viewed more as craft jobs that most people could try their hand at. I do believe that we can turn the tide on this, but we have to do a really good selling job on tiling as an aspirational and rewarding career for new entrants, whether young or old.