Bristol was named as one of the most successful cities in the UK for tradespeople, according to a recent report.
The survey by Confused.com ranked the city second only to Leicester and revealed companies have a survival rate of almost 90 per cent overall, with double glazing installers and carpenters in particular found to be thriving.
One look at the cranes currently dotting Bristol’s skyline and it’s easy to see how there might be rich pickings for qualified tradespeople of all professions.
But in a sector easily swayed by economic shifts, jobs that often form part of a bigger chain and a reliance on skilled workers; when there are overheads and insurance to consider, as well as limited job security, putting all your tools in one box can still be a risky business.
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Reflecting on the current climate in Bristol, Phil Smith, managing director at Business West, says the construction boom, prompted by the demand for new homes, university growth and major office development, is positive for skilled tradespeople.
He adds a note of caution, pointing out that political changes have the potential to adversely impact work on the ground.
“A recent report by Business West, in conjunction with IPPR, found that under Brexit immigration plans, 75 per cent of EU migrant workers currently in Bristol would be ineligible to work,” says Smith.
“This could have an impact on the industry, meaning that more emphasis locally will need to be placed on apprenticeships.”
Fishponds-based builder Will Browne-Cole launched his own company, WBC Developments, in 2006. His small team undertakes a wide variety of building projects, ranging from basement excavations and renovations to loft conversions and extensions.
Reflecting on his professional journey, Browne-Cole says: “After school I worked in a joinery shop and spent my time learning all aspects of the trade before setting up on my own.
“The main challenge is that I have more requests for work than I can physically take on and, as a result, I am so busy that it can be a real challenge to balance work and family life. Bristol is a thriving city and all my work comes through recommendations and word of mouth.
“I have never had a shortage of work, so I would say there are great economic opportunities for quality tradespeople in Bristol who are willing to work hard.”
The builder predicts the next five to ten years will bring innovations in materials used, as well as an increased focus on sustainable and eco-friendly building.
He adds: “There has been a trend in people extending their own homes rather than moving to a new property and I think this is a trend that will continue.”
Bristol’s booming trades sector undoubtedly poses a wealth of possibilities that are only set to expand with technological innovation and the drive for sustainable solutions.
One of the key challenges is ensuring the city has a workforce with the right skills to meet demand and ensuring these economic opportunities are open to all.
An event, hosted by Bristol Women’s Voice (BWV), was aimed at addressing the current gender imbalance in trades professions.
One of the event organisers, Sandra Gordon, explains: “The construction and trade industry in the city are booming and women, unfortunately, are in the minority within those roles.
“Although being a self-employed tradesperson could provide flexibility and a good income to women, the number involved in or entering the industry remains fairly low.”
One professional bucking the trend is Deborah Stanley-Jones, who re-trained as a plumber after a 32-year career in retail and went on to launch her own award-winning business, The Plumbher, in 2010, working with residential and commercial clients.
She has since qualified as a Gas Safe engineer as well, and mentors students from South Gloucestershire College who are working towards their NVQ2 qualification.
Stanley-Jones is keen to see the current lack of females in trades roles change and highlights networks, such as Women in Trade, that seek to support womxn in the industry and encourage others to consider it as a career option.
“There are very few females in construction,” she tells Bristol24/7.
“We need to get into schools and reach children at an early age. There should be opportunity at schools for girls to do ‘boys things’ and likewise, boys do ‘girl things’.”
Stanley-Jones adds: “Bristol is the perfect city for tradespeople. Just walk out your front door and see just how much construction is going on. There are various network groups in Bristol and we, as female tradespeople, are looking to form a group to give women the opportunity to see what we do and be there to support and help and any female looking to go into construction.”
Looking to the future, she says: “The main changes I predict will be primarily in heating, as opposed to plumbing. With the focus on the government and the world, to reduce the carbon footprint, I see a big push and further development in sustainable and renewable energy.”
This is a trend that electrician Chris Thomas is already witnessing and one he predicts will only continue as the demand for smart systems in homes and building controls, LED lighting, green and renewable energy and vehicle charging points increases.
Thomas has been in the electrical industry since the age of 22, working for different companies, before becoming self-employed and sub-contracting to firms.
“The end plan was to work for myself and start a business. This is the fifth year of working for myself and I love it,” says Thomas, who takes on commercial, industrial and domestic electrical work.
“The main challenge for me is trying to meet deadlines of companies I work for because I’m so busy. It’s important to make sure I, and other tradespeople, don’t hold each other up, ensuring jobs run smoothly and finish on time and don’t overrun.”
Bridging the skills gap
People seeking a career in the building industry could get first-hand experience at a new training centre planned for south Bristol.
The City of Bristol College wants to open its £9m facility in Hengrove Park in September 2021 in a bid to prepare workforces for the thousands of jobs in trades expected in the region in the coming years.
Plans for the new centre will include a mock building site run by Galliford Try Partnership, the training arm of Galliford Try, in a bid to ensure “maximum employability” for graduates.
Caroline Henn, of Practical Women, has first-hand experience of how traditional routes into the trades industry can be limited and off-putting to women. She is one of a team of multi-skilled tradeswomen based in Bristol seeking to change this.
A new community interest company, Be Practical, will address the skills and knowledge gap and provide accessible training for people who want to learn practical skills, whether it’s for DIY at home or to seek a career in the trades.
“We hear from many women who are really keen to find out what it’s like to work in the trades,” says Henn.
“It’s great that women feel this could now be an option for them and there are certainly more women plumbers, carpenters and electricians than ever before. These women are realising the benefits of networking and collaborating with each other to provide support and visibility in the industry.
“Sadly, some of the formal training routes provided by colleges and apprenticeships can be off-putting to women. Only one per cent of people working on the tools are women – one of the lowest rates out of all countries in the EU – and training opportunities for women wanting to learn a trade are limited.
“On all courses I have attended, I was the only woman and clearly a novelty item. This can be a very daunting experience.
“We hope that the times are changing and that female tradespeople will become completely normal. With the help of Be Practical, we intend to do our level best to make that happen.”
Main photo of Wapping Wharf by @JonCraig_Photos
Read more: Celebrating Bristol’s women in trade