Several big names see turnover fall but sector optimistic for the medium term.
This time last year, sentiments were improving across the scaffolding sector - and 12 months on, the situation is similar, albeit four of the sector’s top 10 contractors have recorded declines in turnover.
*Wood industrual services previously operated as Pyeroy – full name now Wood Group Industrial Services
** Trad Group has changed end of financial year from November to August – figures represent both Trad Scaffolding and Trade Hire & Sales
“I would say it’s onwards and upwards for the sector, really,” says National Access and Scaffolding Confederation managing director Robin James.
“I think the view last year was that things were improving, but that margins were tight. There’s still a bit of that around, but the upturn is spreading across the regions now, whereas it was a bit city-centric before.”
Despite the regions seeing more work, London and the South-east have continued to drive growth.
London’s growth opportunities
In particular, the boom in residential schemes in central and west London is providing opportunities for scaffolding firms, as have a number of commercial schemes.
“You only have to go through London to see the number of tower cranes on the skyline,” says Trad Group managing director Des Moore.
“We’re getting pockets of the country where people have more than enough work, and there’s a feel-good factor”
Robin James, NASC
“It’s fair to say London and the South-east are most buoyant, heading down to the coast, but other areas are getting busier.”
Mr James says work has picked up in the regions from Scotland to the South-west. “We have some prominent members in Cornwall who are very busy,” he says.
“We’re getting pockets of the country where people have more than enough work, and there’s a feel-good factor.”
Mr Moore echoes this, noting that the Midlands had been relatively quiet during the downturn but is now recovering, while work around Leeds has picked up thanks to a greater volume of industrial activity.
Demand too has been steadier over the four months since the general election in May. “It’s remarkable to think it only took place a couple of months ago,” Mr James says. “It seems to be business as usual now.”
Looking beyond this year, the residential and commercial sectors are expected to continue providing a solid pipeline of work, along with the industrial and infrastructure sectors.
Meeting the rising demand may prove a challenge, however, due to the intractable problem of not having enough qualified staff.
“Skills will be a real challenge going forward for all companies,” Mr Moore says. “More than 10 per cent of our workforce are apprentices and we have a graduate training programme - which I think is quite unusual for a scaffolding company.
“Our main focus for the next year will be on training, as we need to have the labour available to meet that demand.”
Training take-up improves
The NASC has also seen an increase in training among its members, highlighting the recognition among scaffolding specialists that skills is a problem that needs tackling.
“I would say there’s tremendous pressure on apprenticeships generally, in this rather complex world following the Richards Report,” Mr James says.
“There is more demand and the same capacity - but a lot of that margin is being eaten up with the increased labour costs”
Des Moore, Trad Group
“It’s a constantly moving landscape. Training provision, getting operatives trained and not having to wait six to eight months is tough.
“We’ve seen training numbers up, with a lot of uptake in training centres.”
Looking ahead, Mr Moore acknowledges that some sectors are more competitive than others, but says Trad Group will aim to continue growing “modestly”.
“Prices have certainly increased, as there is more demand and the same capacity - but a lot of that margin is being eaten up with the increased labour costs,” he says, emphasising why the training issue is especially crucial in the near term.
The NASC has seen membership increase having remained steady during the downturn - a sign it says of the sector’s renewed confidence.
But there is recognition that it’s too soon to hail the boom times as having returned.
While there is more work available, competition over prices is still fierce, especially on the lower-value projects that are attracting smaller companies, as those contractors have lower overheads to take into account when pricing jobs.
“The picture is an improving one,” Mr James says. “But there’s a cautious note, as margins are still tight and there are still people in there undercutting.”