You get What You Pay For

Matthew Cousins discusses the ongoing frustrations for firms seeking reliable labour in an employee’s market, and more importantly retaining that labour while competition is fierce and wages are spiralling.

Everyone’s heard of the old saying ‘You get What You Pay For’ – here in the scaffolding industry this certainly applies to both Scaffolders and materials. As the summer heatwave arrives, quite a few are getting hot under the collar over the subject as Matthew Cousins, Director of Apex Scaffolding explains.

We all know the eternal problem Scaffolding companies face in terms of finding both scaffolders and materials. Scaffmag and the media has widely documented the soaring costs of both timber and steel, and how companies are struggling to obtain both for reasonable cost, to fulfil the contracts tendered for pre-pandemic.

I’m not sure there’s ever been a lack of available labour like there is now. Whose fault is that? Are we not being welcoming? Are we not attending careers fairs to promote the job? Do we have a training programme that takes years to complete? What teenager now wants to spend two years training to be a scaffolder, when it seems like you can become a fully qualified bricky just by owning your own trowel.

Is it our recruitment strategy appears to be, ‘my uncle did it once so he said I should have a go’? Ironically, it’s how I got into scaffolding in the first place. Are we still looked upon as not clever enough to get into college?

I’m passionate about working with the NASC to get into schools and colleges. We need to promote the industry as something exciting, challenging and ultimately a decent way to earn good money, without racking up tuition fee debts.

If you need an example, how about this, the other morning yet another scaffolder had come into our office and said: “So and so has rung me up and offered me £X per hour, so I’m off as you don’t pay me enough.” Now anyone who has worked in the office of a scaffolding company will have heard this countless times, and the normal response is as a company we do not like being held to ransom. As soon as word gets round everyone wants a pay rise, because ‘They’re all worth it’.

The week before, as a response to all the previous leavers we had got everyone together in a toolbox talk and said to them: “Do you know what, we’ve been looking at the rates you are all on, and think you have done well in the last 12 months’, so every single person in the firm gets a £1 an hour increase. Even the lad who started three days before had the fastest ever increase! But is this enough?

We always felt our company was the place scaffolders wanted to work. Perhaps that was naïve of us, certainly conceited. We do high profile jobs on amazing buildings and work for the biggest and the best clients – but is this our downfall? We had a chat about it – if we were still on the tools would we want to work to all the extra conditions laid down by the main contractors, glasses, gloves, double lanyards, tool tethers, long trousers, long sleeves, pre-start briefings, safety stand downs, next day briefings, all while earning less than other guys jumping around in shorts on building sites? Do the Tier 1 construction sector actually value the lengths that we, and our operatives go to?

I would like to think our employees appreciate how much we value their safety. We would hope they’d like us to buy them all bacon rolls when someone gets an award. That we offer more training courses than local companies and look after our workers interests. I am still not sure all scaffolders care about is their wage packet. There are some who change companies for 25p an hour and must have a cupboard full of branded t-shirts from every company in the region. That doesn’t excuse the fact that as an industry we haven’t been paying enough for a long time.

The recent pandemic and furlough payments showed being self-employed, or moving companies meant people missed out on government support. But like footballers’ scaffolders only have a certain window to earn the big money so they must get all they can without penalties while they can. Sorry about that.

Someone suggested we could offer them other benefits – I know a lot of other industries offer different perks including healthcare and gym membership. But if they have enough energy for the gym, have they been working hard enough? Do scaffolders really want any of these things?

Vans are popular – but surely only one from the gang gets the benefit of the van, outweighed by the fact he must get up earlier to pick everyone up on the way?

Down here in the South-West we have a housing boom and the HPC project creating a major vacuum point for scaffolders. It’s not a situation we can easily fix. We are starting again with five new apprenticeships, bringing new blood into the industry. Hopefully, they will see the gains of being with us, for the long haul. We like investing in people and watching them grow, and ultimately making them into the sort of people who are worth every penny.

We are exceptionally proud of everyone who puts on an Apex shirt because we want them to be proud of wearing it. If it means we must up our wage bill, then so be it. If this has a knock-on effect on our prices, so be it.

Just like us, if they want the best, they must be prepared to pay for it.

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