Britain is in desperate need of plumbers, engineers and builders as it faces its biggest skills shortage for 30 years.
Major companies and unions have warned that talent gaps across the sector – which many claim have been caused by a continuing decline in apprenticeships – are threatening the economy, just as it is starting to recover from the recession.
But the scarcity of skills means those who are willing to plug the gap are getting heavily rewarded for their work – with those in their teens earning up to £100,000 per year.
Ashley Mullins, 19, who has just completed a two-year plumbing apprenticeship at Pimlico Plumbers, said he is already earning up to £2,000 a week, as his peers rack up student debts at university.
He told MailOnline: ‘I think it is brilliant that I have got this skill under my belt and the apprenticeship was the best way to do it – learning on the job and getting paid at the same time.
‘I really want to travel the world and having this trade means I can go to every country that I want to work – and it means I can save up easily, too.’
According to figures, the construction industry – which accounts for around 7 per cent of GDP – has been particularly hard hit by the shortfall of tradesmen and women, especially in London.
Mark Cahill, managing director of recruitment consultant Manpower Group UK, said that one in three of the largest construction companies is having to turn down work on big projects due to a shortage of skilled labour.
Last year, Manpower said that foreign bricklayers were being hired to work for £1,000 a week – double the normal amount paid to bricklayers – due to the lack of UK talent.
The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technology blamed the situation on a 30-year failure to train apprentices.
Steve Murphy, general secretary of UCATT, said: ‘Skills shortages are a direct result of the industry failing to invest in the future. The entire mind-set of the construction industry is focused on maximising short-term profits.’
The union said that the number of construction apprentices being recruited has been falling for decades, even during the boom years before the 2008 recession.
It added that, in 2013, just 7,280 construction apprentices completed their training across all trades, despite training body Construction Skills estimating that the industry needs 35,000 new entrants to maintain the industry.
The construction industry is said to need 35,000 entrants per year, but the figure in 2013 was just 7,000 (file picture)
And it warned the figure would grow as the construction industry continues to recovers from recession.
Mr Murphy added: ‘The construction industry goes to great lengths not to employ workers directly and in that environment it is unsurprising that companies are not prepared to invest in apprentices, the workers of the future.’
Meanwhile, in a report published in October last year, the Royal Academy of Engineering said the UK needed to train 75,000 professional engineers every year until 2020. It estimates the current figure as 22,000.
Philip Greenish CBE, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering said: ‘We must ensure that we are training the right number of engineers.
‘Only significant investment in higher education will unlock the engineering talent that the UK economy needs to succeed.’
In September last year, Pimlico Plumbers embarked on a national recruitment drive to overcome the skills shortage in London.
Traditionally, Pimlico’s professional tradespeople are recruited from London and the South East, but the number of quality applications from the region has rapidly decreased as the availability of skilled and experienced engineers has reduced.
The company, which currently employs more than 170 staff, is aiming to recruit another 100 experienced professional plumbers and heating engineers from across the UK, who are willing to relocate to London.
Charlie Mullins, CEO of Pimlico Plumbers, said: ‘The growth in the economy and the returning spending confidence of businesses and consumers has seen demand for our services sore.
‘However, the availability of skilled engineers is heading in the opposite direction.’
He added that they had brought in ‘some great people’ in the past 12 months, but there was not enough to meet demand, despite employees being able to earn up to £100,000 a year.
He added: ‘The short answer is the pool of available talent is shrinking by the day, as the work out there continues to rise, both in terms of our bookings and the work that’s around generally.’
Former apprentice Ashley Mullins, from Beckenham, south east London, started his apprenticeship with Pimlico Plumbers when he left school, aged 16.
Major building companies are apparently having to turn down work due to lack of staff (file picture)
With his grandfather as the founder of the company, he had grown up always wanting to get into the plumbing industry.
He told MailOnline: ‘I’d always been interested in plumbing, ever since I was little. When I was about 15, I started thinking about my future and realised that trade was the best thing to have under my belt.’
Ashley said that, at school, pupils were hardly told about apprenticeships, instead being encouraged to go to university or get a job straight away.
He said: ‘I obviously knew about it because of my family, but because they did not talk much about apprenticeships, I told some of my friends about it and three others ending up getting one as well, when they wouldn’t have known otherwise.’
Despite starting his training on £30 a day, Ashley has now completed his plumbing training and earns up to £2,000 a week working on his own.
Apprentices at Pimlico attend college for one day a week to learn the theory and the rest of the week are supervised by a senior engineer.
He said: ‘Learning on the job from the start, I was always one step ahead of my classmates at college.’
UCATT said a major step forward in increasing apprentice numbers would be the introduction of strict public procurement rules requiring companies to recruit and train apprentices.
Companies that failed to train adequate numbers of apprentices would be barred from bidding for public contracts, it suggested.
And Maria Seabright, finance and HR director of Greendale Construction, urged schools to promote careers in construction, rather than just A-levels and university.
She said: ‘The construction industry now offers career opportunities across all academic and skill levels, as well as the ability to work your way up gaining experience as you go.’