‘New Tradesmen’ are the future of UK construction

Research by AXA, one of the UK’s leading construction industry insurers, reveals that a new generation of tradesmen and women is arising. Far from being short on skills, these younger people are bringing a greater diversity of backgrounds and talents to the building trade.

31 May 2016

Posted in Product

The popular image of a tradesman is someone who left school at sixteen, worked on the job and then cemented that experience later on with a vocational qualification. And for older generations that was mostly the case, as sixty per cent of those aged 45 or over followed this route in.

The picture is radically different for those just starting out now. Half of young tradesmen come from a university background, and eighty per cent have A-Levels or equivalent. Fifteen per cent now enter the trades after previously working in a corporate or professional role. Only two per cent have no formal qualifications, compared to 18 per cent of older tradesmen. The number with a formal apprenticeship behind them has almost doubled too.

The number of women entering the trades remains low: accounting for just one in ten, a figure that hasn’t changed since the late 90’s. Those who do join quote the ‘tradesman lifestyle’ as the top draw: independence, choice of jobs and a good work-family balance are named as benefits.

Indeed, passion for the job is the hallmark of the new tradesman. One in five now say their trade was a hobby before it became their work. Half, meanwhile, said they started their own business because they had an innovation or original idea, and two per cent even invented something in the process.

Creative types are welcome in the building trades too. When asked what skills they most need to bring into their business, tradesmen named ‘fresh ideas’ top, far ahead of technical skills. Interestingly, one in ten also named virtual reality (for example, use of gaming technologies to show clients 3D building plans) a vital skill for the future.

Of all the business sectors, tradesmen have the strongest family business traditions. One in ten tradesmen took over their firm from their father: ‘My grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfathers have all done the same!’ as one builder put it. And this tradition is just as important for younger tradesmen: twenty per cent say they plan to pass their business on to their children.

And in direct contradiction of the ‘cowboy builder’ stereotype, the study shows that most tradesmen enjoy a strong emotional bond with their local communities. Eight in ten tradesmen surveyed regularly do work for free for vulnerable customers, and two thirds say they often work extra hours unpaid too.

Sixty five per cent say they often get asked for advice unrelated to their work: interior décor, child-rearing advice, recipes and money-saving tips are most common. One in ten said they’ve even supported a customer through a personal crisis.

While the trades remain male-dominated, they are far from being a hot-bed of macho behaviour these days. Only two per cent of tradesmen have wolf-whistled at work, only three per cent have not turned up for a job, and just six per cent have ever sworn on the job.

And gentlemanly behaviour pays: eighty two per cent of commissions come to tradesmen through personal recommendations from the customer’s family or friends. Not advertising is thus a badge of honour among tradesmen. “I am constantly being called by new customers yet I have never advertised. All my work comes off the back of previous good work”, was an answer that came up repeatedly.

Darrell Sansom, Managing Director, AXA Business Insurance

People often talk about an image problem in the building trades, and the industry has long wrestled with a skills shortage. Our study offers some hope here: the trades offer a very attractive option to young people.

There are few industries where you can be your own boss within a few years of starting out – and earn a better living than most graduate jobs offer. And far from being mundane, the work is often both creative and requires constant innovation. Tradesmen, though rarely credited with this, are often the glue that hold communities together and develop extraordinary relationships of trust with their customers

Darrell Sansom, Managing Director at AXA Business Insurance