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Contractors chase skilled recruits as work picks up

Skills shortages are emerging as a major problem for civil ­engineering contractors amid signs that they are firmly in recruiting mode, research reveals this week.

Results from NCE’s annual Contractors File along with the latest findings from the Civil Engineering Contractors Association’s (Ceca’s) latest Workload Trends Survey suggest the industry could lose out as the prospect of government-backed investment in ­infrastructure looms.

The Contractors File, published in this week’s NCE, confirms that civil engineering contractors are in recruitment mode.

For the first time the firms were asked to detail their recruitment levels and the results show that the 63 firms entered into this year’s file have between them recruited 1,388 civil engineers in the last 12 months. Some 1,104 graduates have also been recruited in the same period.

And the average increase in staff numbers expected in next two years is a healthy 8.5% as firms plan for the anticipated boom in infrastructure spending.

But this is causing new problems. Nearly a quarter (23%) of Ceca members told the workloads survey that they were now finding it difficult to fill positions, as rivals compete for the best workers to meet they own order books. Project managers and estimators are reported to be in particular demand.

This time last year just one in 20 firms had the same concern.

“While for many companies identifying where the next job will come from remains the biggest concern, for an increasing number the new challenge they will face is how to find staff to deliver the work they have won and to bid for future prospects,” said Ceca external affairs director Alasdair Reisner.

The move to recruit comes as both NCE and Ceca’s research shows that the market may be bottoming out.

Following three consecutive years of decline between 2009 and 2011, the 63 firms entered into this year’s Contractors File made £8.8bn in civil engineering last year, a modest increase on the £8.5bn the same firms made the year before.

This year’s entrants claim to have £15.2bn in their combined order books, a modest £20,000 increase on last year.

Ceca’s survey, also published this week and covering the second quarter of 2013, reflects this.

It shows that more contractors are showing growing order books than those reporting falls. While this is not yet being reflected in actual workload, which continues to flat line at a level that shows neither growth nor declines, there is a suggestion that the future looks rosier, according to Reisner.

“There are signs that companies are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

As reasons for optimism Reisner cited government plans for an unprecedented boost in investment in the English strategic road network and the Office of Rail Regulation’s recent draft determination that outlined a five year continuation of levels of spending that have seen the sector become the dominant area of infrastructure investment in recent years.

“Layer over this the mouth-watering prospect of a series of mega-projects such as Thames Water’s Tideway tunnel, the Northern Line extension, the Mersey Gateway bridge, a new Thames crossing and a fleet of new nuclear power stations, topped off by High Speed 2 and everything seems fairly golden, no?” he asked.

Key facts from the Contractors File

  • The 63 firms made £8.8bn in civils last year - up on the £8.5bn the same firms made the year before.
  • This year firms have £15.2bn combined in their order books, up a modest £20,000 on last year.
  • On average our respondents had to wait 46 days to be paid by their clients, and on average paid their suppliers in 47 days.
  • The average margin earned in the next two years is expected to be 4.3%.
  • Rail is the sector most expected to grow with 32% of respondents picking it as one of two growth sectors. Energy is second with 25%, roads third with 16%.
  • High Speed 2 is the most wanted project.

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