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For tunes begin to improve after slow winter for workers

PAY SURVEY - The fifth Options/Construction News employment survey shows that finishing trades experienced the best wage rate rises

LOOKING at a broad range of statistics published over recent months there appears to have been a bit of a wobble in the fortunes of employees and job-seekers in construction over the winter.

There are hints of this in this latest Options/ Construction News employment survey. But the signs now are that things have stabilised as the year has progressed.

This latest survey shows that pay rates have continued to rise, although the percentage reporting rising pay rates slipped to 24 per cent compared with 54 per cent last summer.This fitted with the pattern of responses to how easy it was to find work. For the first time in five surveys, there were more people saying it was harder to find work than saying it was easier.

This weakening of opportunities in the winter fits well with other surveys, such as the Federation of Master Builders MB trade survey - which covers the local building fraternity and is sensitive to changes in the market - the survey by the Construction Confederation, and also Government-produced figures for vacancies in construction.

The FMB survey for the final quarter of last year noted a distinct slide in workloads in late 2003, especially in housing repairs.This will have led to workers being laid off, as these firms tend to operate much more hand-to-mouth than those in other parts of construction.The good news is that the recently released FMB first-quarter survey shows prospects back on an upward path.

The Construction Confederation also registered a slackening in the jobs market for trades in its winter survey.

There was an interesting pattern in vacancies within construction, with the April 2004 figure up in historical terms to 23,700, but this followed a February figure that was the lowest for more than two years.This suggests we should consider this Options/Construction News survey as being undertaken at a period of sluggishness in the jobs market.

That said, the south-east region, which saw a stalling of rates last summer, appears to have bounced back slightly.

There was also a recovery in the rates for electricians, who, 12 months ago, found life suddenly became tough after many buoyant years. Electricians were the one trade that reported, on balance, that it was getting easier rather than harder to find work.

The evidence suggests that Scotland may be easing out of the slough it has found itself in for the past few years.While rates in Scotland are noticeably lower than elsewhere, the gap appears to be closing between rates north and south of the border. But the interviewees' responses suggest, on balance, that it is still tough trying to find work in Scotland.

The surge in rates in the Midlands that followed a boost in workloads in the region is showing signs of easing, although this may be down to a reduction in the levels of very high earners.Meanwhile, the sluggish construction market in Wales has been holding down pay rates there.

What the figures do show is the healthy rate increases that have been seen among the finishing trades; plasterers and painters and decorators experienced some of the best uplift in rates towards the end of last year.

While bricklaying jobs were said by employers to be the hardest to fill, there is little sign that this shortage is having a profound impact on pay.

The indication in the latest figures produced, notably by FMB, is that carpenters may be the trade that is beginning to be stretched, so we may expect to see upward movement in pay there.