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Where have all the brick layers gone?

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How many times have we heard this lament from architects, main contractors and from some of the more tabloid construction press?

'Skills shortages! ! !' scream the headlines.

They proclaim vastly exaggerated rates of pay going (allegedly) to non-deserving cowboys who are sadly lacking in the ability to produce quality workmanship.

Can this really be true? This propaganda has been circulating for so long now, people are actually beginning to believe it.

My view as managing director of probably the country's largest specialist brick, block and stonework contractor - and one who has made a living from brickwork for 40 years now - is that the real truth is far from what the pessimists would have us believe.

Our company's success down the years is due to its ability to produce a quality product time after time. And this is entirely due to the skills of our workforce.

It is my belief that there are sufficient numbers of perfectly competent bricklayers out there who are only too willing to demonstrate their ability to produce first-class brickwork. All they ask in return is that they are suitably recompensed for their efforts and given safe access to the works, plus some recognition that they are an integral part of the process, and that they are allowed both the time and the opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

Getting it right first time

My company has employed thousands of bricklayers over the years, and currently uses about 500. It is my experience that very few of them fail to respond when they realise that they have both the time and the incentive to produce a quality product without affecting their earnings. In fact, they can improve their earning potential once they realise that it is just as quick to build properly the first time rather than knock it down and build it again.

How many times has the cheapest subcontractor been chosen when it is obvious they have little understanding of what is required to carry out the works to an acceptable standard?

The important thing is not the price at which the contract is let but the price eventually paid to get the works completed. My company always has at least one contract on the go where we were not the cheapest bidder, but for which we have been called in to sort out a mess and finish a job properly after the initial successful tenderer has gone out of business or been removed from the contract for poor performance.

Planning and paraphernalia

I cannot help feeling sometimes that brickwork is taken for granted. A little thought and some planning will pay enormous dividends in the long term. I am thinking particularly of logistical planning to provide a safe working environment for the bricklayer and an efficient method of moving materials around the site, both horizontally and vertically, to ensure continuity of supply to the bricklayer. Again, it has been my company's experience that the logistics of ensuring a constant supply of bricks and mortar at the workface often proves to be more challenging than the job of laying the bricks.

Architects obviously have a large part to play in the overall scheme of things, and a little more attention to the buildability of brickwork design would not go amiss. You would be amazed, even now, at the number of projects my company looks at where just a little tinkering with the design would remove all the cut bricks from the project - which has to be of great benefit in itself.

Also, early consultation with the specialist trade contractor with regard to choice of materials will help - based upon the specialist's practical experience. Will this mortar really work with this brick, particularly if it is jointed like this and built in this bond?

Another point I would like to make in defence of the modern bricklayer is to underline how technology has moved on - with particular regard to wind posts, stainless-steel support angles and the like. I was on a scaffold the other day and found a bricklayer surrounded by electric drills, epoxy adhesive, insulation board, damp course, nuts, bolts, stainless-steel angles and a torque wrench. With all this paraphernalia it was difficult to find space for a trowel, let alone the bricks and mortar. I think bricklayers have adapted well under the circumstances to cope with all the new skills now expected of them.

In conclusion, I repeat that I am firmly convinced that the bricklayers are out there.

They need identifying, some of them need a degree of training but, most of all, they need recognition, assurance that their chosen profession can be carried out in a safe working environment and suitable recompense for their efforts.

I can assure you that if you invest in their skills you will be rewarded. Never forget the old adage: 'If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.'

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