Development trade bears brunt of cooling UK labour market

A yr in the past, UK brickmakers couldn’t produce sufficient to maintain up with racing demand. Now, they’ve the other drawback: brickyards usually are not large enough to carry the mounting stacks of unsold inventory.

With excessive rates of interest placing many housebuilding tasks on maintain “for the foreseeable future”, Forterra, a listed brickmaker, is slicing manpower and mothballing websites — together with one, in Lancashire, the place a gravity-fed ropeway has carried clay to the kilns for a century.

“These are good, well-paid, unionised jobs,” mentioned Charlotte Childs, a nationwide officer on the GMB union. About 200 employees will probably be affected, together with many in roles resembling kiln or machine operators that may sometimes entice salaries above £35,000. 

The building sector — hit by the housing market downturn, squeezed mortgage holders scrapping residence extensions and the potential scaling- again of massive public tasks such because the HS2 rail line — is bearing the brunt of a wider labour market slowdown.

Vacancies, which rocketed within the post-coronavirus pandemic upswing, have been falling for greater than a yr. The most recent official information confirmed unemployment up sharply from 3.8 per cent on the quarter to 4.3 per cent and employment down, regardless that common wages had been nonetheless rising at a file tempo. 

However these figures solely cowl the interval as much as July and analysts have questioned whether or not they are often relied on — because the Workplace for Nationwide Statistics is within the technique of overhauling its labour market survey following a pointy drop in response charges because the pandemic. 

Line chart of  showing Record wage growth is at odds with a weakening jobs market

Gauging simply how a lot the roles market has weakened because the summer season is essential for policymakers on the Financial institution of England as they assess how lengthy to maintain rates of interest excessive. The financial coverage committee thinks unemployment should rise, and wage development gradual, for inflation to return sustainably to its 2 per cent goal. But when it retains coverage too tight for too lengthy, it may set off pointless and painful job losses. 

With banks, regulation companies and consultancies seeing a drop in mergers and acquisitions; massive tech corporations scaling again their presence within the UK and consumer-facing industries feeling the consequences of squeezed family budgets, jobseekers are actually in a really totally different surroundings than in 2021 and 2022, when employers entered bidding wars to fill gaps. 

“Folks getting back from the vacations are placing their heads down, staying put and are simply grateful they’ve a job,” mentioned Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG, who has discovered employers across the UK to be a lot much less involved about employees churn and wage pressures.

Others additionally mentioned the labour market may now be weaker — and wage development slower — than the official information recommended.

“We’re in a special place from 12 months in the past . . . [Employees feel that] when you have a file and tenure, possibly it’s higher to remain the place you’re,” mentioned Chris Grey, director on the recruiter ManpowerGroup UK, describing the general jobs market as blended, with variation between sectors, however “most likely extra ebb than circulate”.

Nevertheless, most analysts suppose that whereas wage development is slowing, job losses are prone to be extra restricted than in earlier downturns — as a result of the UK workforce is already depleted by demographics, the departure of EU staff and excessive charges of long-term illness. 

Neil Carberry, chief government of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, mentioned that though employers had been taking longer to decide to new hires, confidence was however enhancing. “The affect of a protracted interval of gradual development is lower than it will have been prior to now,” he mentioned, including that many corporations would be capable of entice candidates on decrease salaries in the event that they had been prepared to proceed providing flexibility on homeworking. 

The benign total image masks massive variations between sectors, with building and retail struggling, whereas areas resembling social care nonetheless battle to recruit. However even in sectors which have seen high-profile lay-offs, recruiters say there are nonetheless pockets of sturdy demand. 

Rhona Carmichael, chief business officer on the specialist tech recruiter Nash Squared, mentioned many regional corporations had been unable to compete on pay on the peak of the post-Covid hiring frenzy, as distant working allowed the US teams to recruit from a wider pool. 

“They had been getting gazumped when the market was uncontrolled . . . Now there’s a diploma of normality,” she mentioned, including that greater than half of corporations nonetheless aimed to broaden IT groups. 

As staff develop into extra cautious of leaving a safe job, some recruiters say they’re in a paradoxical scenario the place employers usually are not wanting so as to add to headcount, however are nonetheless struggling to maintain staffing at full power. 

Grey mentioned that though job adverts had been now attracting extra candidates, it was “like strolling by means of treacle”, with companies continuously recruiting to interchange employees who left or fell ailing, fairly than to broaden. 

Even within the sectors hardest hit, trade figures fear extra about struggling to recruit when demand bounces again than they do about job losses now.

Greg Shaw, a regional director for Randstad’s building staff, mentioned the recruitment company was seeking to fill simply 350 vacancies within the sector, down from 1,850 a yr in the past, and that there was a giant threat expert staff would “soften away into the remainder of the UK economic system” throughout the downturn. 

“The federal government has to behave now earlier than folks begin drifting away into totally different industries,” he mentioned, arguing that work to repair unsafe faculty buildings may assist use slack within the sector. 

Column chart of Change in number of UK construction workers, by age and place of birth, Q1 2019 to Q2 2023 (000s)  showing The construction workforce has fallen by over 250,000 since 2019

Noble Francis, economics director on the Development Merchandise Affiliation, mentioned the sector’s workforce had shrunk by 273,000 since 2019, resulting from early retirement among the many self-employed, EU staff leaving and the more moderen downturn. This may make it not possible for the federal government to hit its targets on constructing reasonably priced housing, making present housing extra energy-efficient or levelling up, he argued.

“When you lose staff to early retirement or different sectors, they don’t have a tendency to come back again.”


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