After five long years... the jobs market reawakens

2 June 2013

The slumbering jobs market is coming back to life after five years in hibernation. Denise Chevin finds out who's in demand, where and why. Illustrations by Brett Ryder

It’s time to dust down your CV and dry clean your best outfit. After six years of pay freezes and career stagnation, the job market finally looks like it’s sprung back to life, with recruitment consultants reporting the most buoyant time since the heady days of the pre-2007 credit crunch.

There has been a substantial change in the market since January, they say, with demand for new staff picking up across the board and, encouragingly, in companies of all sizes. The balance of power in some circumstances is on the cusp of tipping from the employer back to the employee – and with it comes pay rises. Some roles are in such demand and people with certain skills in such short supply that skills shortages take hold sooner than anticipated.

During the past five years, more than 400,000 jobs have been lost in construction, leaving gaping holes in expertise that will quickly become exposed with even a moderate upturn. Ed Hoad, managing director at Catalyst Executive Search, sums up the general sentiment, saying: “The market for quantity surveyors and project managers in London is the busiest I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous at the moment.”

The impact of the freeze on graduate recruitment in the past five years is now also being felt, says Hoad. “Graduates with three to five years’ experience earning between £35,000 and £45,000 are at a premium because so much work is going on. I can see a looming skills crisis. But there’s demand at the higher levels too for those in the £80,000 to £120,000 bracket with a good number of big projects looking for project directors. The key thing people must be able to show is that they can deliver. It’s all about delivery.”

Andrew Szklarek, UK director at Project Resource, agrees. “Demand is high for mid-level people with five to six years’ experience,” he says. “It’s another example of the industry not learning its lessons. Between 2008 and 2010 firms didn’t hire anyone. So I know we are going to pay for that. Within 12 months, qualified QSs will be hard to find.”

Stephen Gee, managing partner of quantity surveyor John Rowan & Partners, says the firm has already noticed a change in the market. “We’ve been recruiting for the past 18 months at various levels, and it’s been quite straight forward to get good quality people and there were no signs of existing staff leaving. The last two to three months have changed quite significantly — there are definitely fewer CVs circulating and three of our senior staff are leaving.” 

Where's the work coming from?

The optimistic outlook from the recruitment sector couldn’t be more at odds with headlines which continue to report construction output in decline. But ONS output figures measuring completed projects overlook what’s happening at the other end of the project timeline: an underlying trend that enquiries and pre-construction work is taking off, at least in London and the south east.

This is backed up by a raft of surveys suggesting that construction could be turning a corner with workloads and tender prices set to rise from 2014.

Use social media and network

One of the biggest changes to recruitment this time round is the rise of social media as a tool for employers to find talent directly, either through LinkedIn, Pininterest or Facebook, says Robert Wright.

“Job hunting these days is less about waiting for a head hunter to phone up and more about thinking how you present yourself on social media. Job seekers also need to focus on building a network with decision makers, so networking is key.

"Go to the right events and connect with the important people. If you have in mind a type of job you would like and don’t have the experience then the best way to get a foot in the door is to try and make contact directly with the employer. Email them and ask them for a coffee – it’s surprising how amenable people are. The days of playing CV snap are over.”

The latest forecast from the Construction Products Association acknowledges that output will continue to fall by 2.1% in 2013, but predicts total construction output will grow 1.9% to £97bn in 2014 – thanks largely to investment in private housing, infrastructure and factories – followed by a 3.8% rise in 2015 and a 4.7% rise in 2016.

The latest RICS construction market survey also reports increases in workload already coming through. The RICS said a main driver was the boost in private housing construction. The upbeat mood in house building, spurred on by a number of government sweeteners and the affordable housing programme, is also reflected in the latest National House-Building Council figures. The number of new homes registered pre-construction with the NHBC in the UK during the first quarter of this year reached 31,739, the highest level for this period since 2008 and a 22% increase over the past year. London registrations led the surge, with a 61% increase in new houses registered in the first quarter of 2013 compared to Q1 2012.

Jamie Williams, head of facilities management at recruitment consultant Macdonald & Co, remarks: “We’re seeing a lot of demand for project management with consultancies and developers. There’s a number of large projects going live in London, like Battersea power station, and companies are starting to staff up to deliver them.” One emerging trend is for developers to second staff from consultancy firms rather than hire direct.

Others at the top of the supply chain, such as architects and engineers specialising in commercial and housing, are also seeing order books fatten. Lisa Delaney, senior human resources officer at Scott Brownrigg, says the architectural practice has recruited 38 staff in the last 12 months thanks to project wins and the opening of new offices in Edinburgh and Singapore. “We’re very buoyant and optimistic at the moment compared to two years ago,” she says. “We have taken on people at all levels, across all sectors, a mixture of fixed-term contracts and permanent staff. I have five new starters in the London office on Tuesday.”

People are prepared to move

As confidence tentatively returns to the market, so does people’s confidence to move jobs after sitting out the recession, which in turn is creating more new openings. A survey of RICS members at the start of the year by the RICS and Macdonald & Co showed that 37% of staff would be prepared to move within the next 12 months.

Catalyst Executive Search’s Ed Hoad says: “People have hesitated about moving, but have had itchy feet for a long time. They have also got disillusioned as well, with no rises or pay cuts. People feel they’ve had a miserable time, want to maximise their salary potential and move somewhere new.

“I think that the time has been and gone when people were worried about moving,” observes Mark Ritchie, team manager at Judd Farris. “We’ve seen a pick up since the end of last year, definitely new shoots coming through in the industry. Busy areas for us are commercial, estimators and surveyors as well as design and draughtspeople, we’re particularly busy recruiting for small-to-medium-sized companies and contractors and specialists.”

John Rowan & Partners’ Stephen Gee, who is also seeing staff movement for the first time in three years, says that the firm, and others like it, is now giving staff modest pay rises – aware that they need to look to hold on to staff.

What type of role is in demand?

“The market for permanent employees has gone through a step change from the start of 2013. Since this time last year we have seen 20% more vacancies,” says Duncan Bullimore, building division director at Hays Construction and Property. “There’s a real mixture of job roles. In contractors it’s for both on site and commercial roles. Generally, people are always in the market for good estimators and buyers. In the past couple of years the market has been for freelance site staff, but the fact there is a rebalancing with more office-based staff shows organisations are confident there is a decent pipeline of work.

"People have hesitated about moving, but have had itchy feet for a long time. They have also got disillusioned, with no rises or pay cuts. People feel they've had a miserable time, want to maximise their salary potential and move somewhere new."

Ed Hoad, Catalyst Executive Search

“Again, what comes through strongly is the general demand across the board from consultants and contractors and from smaller and medium sized firms.”

George Cumersdale at UKL says: “It’s definitely picking up for us on the project management and site management side, particularly among the top 20 contractors. But also for design managers and estimators and other pre-construction jobs.”

Housing is definitely a hot spot. Hays’ Bullimore says: “We’ve lost huge numbers of housing professionals in the last four years and even a moderate upturn in the sector shows the weaknesses in the candidate market. I think fairly quickly we’ll see inflation.”

Mike Ward, director of One Way Recruitment, echoes these sentiments. “The market is crying out for good estimators and in both main and subcontractors. They really are in short supply everywhere. It’s a job associated with an older generation. The recession was used to get rid of a lot of dead wood, but we’ll be heading for a chronic shortage if there is not an influx of new blood soon.

And the ideal? It's all about delivery

Forget the soft skills, it’s all about the projects on the CV and candidates’ part in the successful delivery. “Clients are looking for good project management skills – people who can get the project done on time and to budget,” says Rob Wright, managing director of TJ Peel Resourcing, a national recruitment company based in York.

George Cumersdale at UKL agrees: “The key skill is being able to deliver on time – and on the design side, contractors want those who can demonstrate good value engineering skills.”

“Employers want employees who can hit the ground running with the minimum training,” adds Hays’ Bullimore. “Employers are after people with good commercial acumen – in any role. Gone are the days when site construction staff were expected to be oblivious to cost.”

The commercial acumen of the private sector is in great demand in the public sector, which is now under more pressure financially. “We’re seeing quite a lot of people moving from the private sector into NHS Estates, social housing, education (universities), which are all looking to take on people with commercial experience,” adds Wright.

In terms of specific skills, BIM and sustainability expertise are not having a noticeable impact at the moment, but this is expected to change.

As well as a track record in delivering, another key thing catching employers’ eyes is whether you are in a job already. Rob Smith chairman of The Management Recruitment Group, says. “Employers are looking for longevity. They want to see candidates have been somewhere for say five years and there’s a definite feeling that if they’ve been let go, they can’t have been that good.

"Employers are being choosy about who they take on - they want to get it right and will pay the right amount for the right person, and some packages are getting beefed up as a result."

Duncan Bullimore, Hays Construction and Property

The need to have CSCS cards and Site Management Safety Training Scheme (SMSTS) cards is stronger now than ever too. “Someone we placed had their offer withdrawn because their CSCS card had expired,” adds Smith, but “if candidates are MCIOB then they do stand out”.

For Stephen Gee it’s more about finding the right personality: “Yes, we’re looking for the right qualifications, but most people these days are fairly proficient at writing a CV. What makes it stand out for us is someone with an interesting life outside work. We’re looking for team players who work hard, but like playing hard too.”

And salaries?

Despite the upturn in activity, recruitment consultants are not universally seeing an increase in salaries and benefits yet and say that employers generally are being unrealistic in the salaries they are offering to pay. That’s largely in the false belief that there are more good people out there looking for work than there actually are. Some report that salaries are still lower than they were four to five years ago – but are gaining strength.

“There’s no notable salary inflation at the moment,” says Hays’ Bullimore. “But I would say it’s on the cusp. Employers are being choosy about who they take on – they want to get it right and will pay the right amount for the right person, and some packages are getting beefed up as a result.”

Mark Ritchie at Judd Farris agrees: “Clients will pay more if the ideal person comes through the door. That often means demonstrating a degree of longevity, and if they’ve done similar work to what the company is recruiting for.”

And after several years’ absence, or car allowances, the company car is returning too.

North-south divide

London already has more tower cranes than the rest of the UK put together, add in the south east and East Anglia and that amounts to 80%. So the pickup in the market is particularly prevalent in the capital. But vacancies are gathering pace in other areas too. “The regional market is still difficult, though Birmingham and Manchester are not too bad,” says Wright. “The cities that are worst are the ones that were more reliant on public spending, such as Sheffield and Newcastle.”

Darren Warmington at BSV reports that Leeds and Manchester are busy, while Hays’ Bullimore says the market is buoyant in the south west, south coast, Hampshire and east midlands too. Further afield, the Middle East is also picking up.

Contract versus permanent

One of the defining shifts of the recession has been the rise in the freelance workforce, and construction has been no exception. However, most recruitment consultants are reporting growth in permanent roles. Duncan Bullimore of Hays remarks: “The freelance market is stable. But freelancers applying for permanent jobs are often at a disadvantage because of the way their CV looks – though many people have had no choice.”

Helen Drummond, head of human resources and learning and development at architect PRP, says: “We have had a healthy start to the year in terms of recruitment having taken on people for a variety of roles. We are currently favouring permanent appointments over fixed term and are converting fixed-term contracts to permanent in the majority of cases owing to employees having the right skills at the right time. This is in contrast to 2011 and 2012, when many appointments were fixed term, reflecting our desire to exercise caution at the time.”

However, Project Resource’s Andrew Szklarek forecasts that employees themselves will be creating a more buoyant freelance market: “We will see more of an appetite for candidates to go freelance. A lot of people lost their jobs during the recession so they realise in a way having a permanent job is no more secure. But they can earn up to 50% more on contracts.”


I am a fresh graduate with Construction Management Degree 2:1 from the University of Northampton. I also have CSCS Graduate card/SMSTS Certificate and NEBOSH Construction Certificate/First Aid Certificate.

Only one thing I don't have is "years of experience". Such a shame. No one hires me because I have no experience. I am losing hope now. How can I have years of experience? If no one gives me a job?


Vikram Kalsi, 29 June 2013

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