Compared to the last six months, the atmosphere in the industry today does seem a lot more stable. The majority of steelwork contractors seem to be much busier now and for the next six months than they were the preceding six months; for many a “feast” after a “famine”.
COVID-19 has, however, created some problems that many of us wouldn’t have expected. The general workforce of the UK has been through a turbulent time with working from home, reduced overtime, furlough or worse. All of these have been forced upon the employee and the employer alike, and it’s been very difficult for both parties to work through these different phases.
Due to lockdowns, many families have saved money and the immediate requirement to need overtime to supplement their basic pay packages is no longer there. Many companies are struggling to entice employees to work overtime during this mini-boom when the company is desperate to increase production. It is not easy to find experienced staff and many companies are juggling the salary expectations of employees with the gross profits on the budget sheets being squeezed, with large increases in material prices over a very short period.
One of the things I encounter is a growing resentment amongst “skilled” workers with their hourly rate in comparison to the rate of the “unskilled” worker. Year-on-year, both the National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage (NLW) hourly rates have increased significantly due to government stimulus, the age threshold for the NLW has reduced from 25 to 23 and the government are committed to lowering the NLW threshold further to 21 by 2024.
The consequence is that it won’t be long before the “skilled” and “unskilled” worker will be on the same hourly rate, which has already happened in the textile industry. How will we be able to encourage young people to embark on apprenticeships in plating, welding and CNC machine work, when they believe they can earn the same money stacking shelves at the local supermarket?
Throwing money at “skilled” staff is one option, but in a fiercely competitive market, gross profits will be seriously compromised. So, the challenge for us is to demonstrate that they will earn more in our industry, at the same time as having an exciting and rewarding career, rather than just a “job”.
We have a lot to offer. Our “skilled” staff are not on zero-hours contracts, which provides certainty of income, and regular overtime opportunities combined with staff bonus schemes can boost that income significantly. I also suspect that stacking shelves is monotonous and boring compared to working with the latest BIM and 3D modelling software, operating cutting-edge robotic fabrication equipment, or erecting steelwork. To be able to say that you helped to build an iconic skyscraper, new school, hospital or Amazon distribution centre has to be worth something.
Nobody is going to fix the skills shortage for us, so even though we are in a bit of a boom at the moment, we need to think long-term and encourage more people into our industry via the apprentice route. BCSA is there to help us with the CRAFT scheme and investing in school leavers today has to pay dividends. Working in our industry may not be the best paid job in the world, it can be more than frustrating at times, but it could never be called dull.