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Skills and workload shortfall squeeze contractors

UK CIVIL engineering contractors are facing a double whammy of falling workload and crippling skills shortages.

End of year figures from the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions show that infrastructure orders fell 18% in 1997, compared to the previous year. This collapse took place despite an overall 5% increase in new construction orders during 1997, a 33% rise in industrial orders and a 13% jump in commercial building.

Sector breakdown figures - which take no account of inflation - show that roads orders were virtually halved to £936M, by far the lowest level for the last five years. Orders in the 'other' category - which is dominated by rail projects - dropped 18%, reflecting the end of tunnelling on the Jubilee Line Extension.

The only saving grace for civils was the utility sector. Water orders were up 16%, electricity 28% and sewerage 37%.

Falling workload and the more attractive rewards of other construction sectors is causing operatives to flee the industry. Only last week, Tarmac chief executive and Major Contractors Group chairman Sir Neville Simms warned that delays to the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link 'would endanger the skills base within the civils sector'. He added: 'It's already at a very low ebb and is steadily leaking away'.

Construction Forecasting & Research this week released the results of a survey of civils contractors which revealed that almost half were reporting skills shortages in the last quarter of 1997. In particularly short supply were formwork carpenters and bricklayers.

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