Research by construction industry insurers AXA reveals that a new generation of tradesmen and women is arising. Far from being short on skills, these younger people are bringing a greater diversity of backgrounds and talents to the building trade.

The popular image of a tradesman is someone who left school at sixteen, worked on the job and then cemented that experience later on with a vocational qualification. And for older generations that was mostly the case, as 60% of those aged 45 or over followed this route in.

The picture is radically different for those just starting out now. Half of young tradesmen come from a university background, and 80% have A-Levels or equivalent. 15% now enter the trades after previously working in a corporate or professional role. Only 2% have no formal qualifications, compared to 18% of older tradesmen. The number with a formal apprenticeship behind them has almost doubled too.

The number of women entering the trades remains low: accounting for just one in ten, a figure that hasn’t changed since the late 90s. Those who do join quote the ‘tradesman lifestyle’ as the top draw: independence, choice of jobs and a good work-family balance are named as benefits.

Indeed, passion for the job is the hallmark of the new tradesman. One in five now say their trade was a hobby before it became their work. Half, meanwhile, said they started their own business because they on an innovation or original idea, and 2% even invented something in the process.

Creative types are welcome in the building trades too. When asked what skills they most need to bring into their business, tradesmen named ‘fresh ideas’ top, far ahead of technical skills. Interestingly, one in ten also named virtual reality (for example, use of gaming technologies to show clients 3D building plans) a vital skill for the future.

Some things don’t change: courtesy, family and community

Of all the business sectors, tradesmen have the strongest family business traditions. One in ten tradesmen took over their firm from their father: ‘My grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfathers have all done the same!’ as one builder put it. And this tradition is just as important for younger tradesmen: 20% say they plan to pass their business on to their children. 

And in direct contradiction of the ‘cowboy builder’ stereotype, the study shows that most tradesmen enjoy a strong emotional bond with their local communities. Eight in ten tradesmen surveyed regularly do work for free for vulnerable customers, and two thirds say they often work extra hours unpaid too.

65% say they often get asked for advice unrelated to their work: interior décor, child-rearing advice, recipes and money-saving tips are most common. One in ten said they’ve even supported a customer through a personal crisis.

While the trades remain male-dominated, they are far from being a hot-bed of macho behaviour these days. Only 2% of tradesmen have wolf-whistled at work, only 3%have not turned up for a job, and just 6% have ever sworn on the job.

And gentlemanly behaviour pays: 82% of commissions come to tradesmen through personal recommendations from the customer’s family or friends. Not advertising is thus a badge of honour among tradesmen.  “I am constantly being called by new customers yet I have never advertised. All my work comes off the back of previous good work”, was an answer that came up repeatedly.

Darrell Sansom, Managing Director, AXA Business Insurance comments: “People often talk about an image problem in the building trades, and the industry has long wrestled with a skills shortage. Our study offers some hope here: the trades offer a very attractive option to young people.

There are few industries where you can be your own boss within a few years of starting out – and earn a better living than most graduate jobs offer. And far from being mundane, the work is often both creative and requires constant innovation. Tradesmen, though rarely credited with this, are often the glue that hold communities together and develop extraordinary relationships of trust with their customers”.

About the study

AXA's surveys of UK tradesmen were conducted in November 2015 (320 businesses) and March 2016 (808 businesses). The study found that 10% of small trades businesses are owned by women. Office of National Statistics figures show that in 2001 there were 278,000 women in the skilled trades, compared to 2,968,000 men (just over 9%).