These may be rosier times for the construction industry, but the dark days of the recession are  still casting their shadow across the sector.  Paul Thompson finds out how the plastering sector is attracting new recruits and developing products to boost productivity and deliver quality.

Many time-served skilled craftsmen of all trades, in high demand at the peak of the construction boom, took the decision to hang up their tools during the downturn. This, coupled with a scarcity of new trades being attracted to the industry thanks to a perceived lack of employment opportunities, has seen an existing skills shortage deepen further.

Skilled plasterers and dryliners are in just as much short supply as any other trade, but without a magic wand, the professionals of the future are not going to appear overnight. Even if the industry could suddenly attract the numbers of new workers it needs there would still be a lull while these new recruits are training and gaining experience.

“There is no doubt it is becoming more difficult to find skilled staff,” said Tony O’Halloran, regional construction  director at interior finishing and exterior facade specialist Conneely Group. “We work hard to keep our gangs busy. They can be very difficult to replace and we don’t want to lose our best trades.”

With corporate social responsibility charters running through the  conscience of most clients and main contractors alongside the government’s  drive to push apprenticeships, moves to ensure there are a set number of trainees on any given project are commonplace. The difficulty is finding the calibre of school leaver that is ready to embrace the world of work and knuckle down on-site.

In a bid to help draw more staff into the business, Conneely has teamed up with colleges in north and south London to develop a training plan that sees those interested in becoming plasterers and dryliners get a foothold in the industry.

“We put them on a 12-week unpaid course at college and then, following satisfactory completion of the course, they work as paid apprentices on our projects for 12 months. We have a strict reference checking regime in place, but even then there will be those who realise it’s just not for them and drop out. That can be disappointing, but we only want those prepared to work hard and move on in their career,” commented Mr O’Halloran.

Manufacturers too are joining in with the bid to bring more young apprentices into the industry. British Gypsum is one that supports those interested in a career in the sector. It has, for many years, offered schooling in plastering and drylining, recently celebrating the delivery of 500,000 training days since its first academy opened in the 1960s, but it has also increased its input through its ‘Thistle Partnership’ tie-in with training centres and colleges across the country.

“For the 2016-17 college  academic year we are increasing our Thistle Partnership support from 69 to 75 colleges around the UK. All colleges will be attending CPD days in June and July which provide training on the latest innovations and products used in the interiors sector. These CPD days are an integral part of keeping colleges up to date with new products and systems, as well as new legislation in the  construction industry,” explained  David Hall, National Technical  Academy manager at British Gypsum.

But the development of new and innovative systems is also vitally important to keep the sector  productive. By making the  plastering process more efficient those skilled trades can cover more ground and be available to help those less-experienced coming up through the ranks.

Spray-applied plaster is one such product that promises to speed up the plastering process and release more skilled trades to apply the finishing touches. In fact, the process was showcased on Grand Designs at a huge house on the Isle of Wight. Brady Building &  Groundworks used Knauf MP75  Projection Plaster to provide a tough, smooth white surface ready to receive decoration. The plaster was delivered to site pre-mixed, ready to use, and is specifically designed for machine application. Knauf claims it is up to three  times faster than traditional  plastering methods.

“Using a traditional method, with a topcoat and a basecoat, would simply have taken too long for the six to eight weeks we had available,” explained Nick Brady, owner of the main contractor. “And I don’t think there is a team of plasterers on the island big enough to do the work.”

Such systems can be applied up to 20mm thick in one application and are suitable for use directly onto blockwork, uneven in-situ concrete or thin joint blockwork. These plasters also help speed up the process because they dry  rapidly and are easy to finish – just spray, level, sand and paint. And  because the job requires fewer operatives, it is easier to supervise making the maintenance of a high-quality, consistent finish easier.

Ultimately it will be a  combination of training,  apprenticeships and product  development that will help stave off any major impact of  temporary skills shortages; contractors, specifiers, architects, clients and manufacturers all have to make their mark in helping address it.

Mr Hall from British Gypsum added: “With approximately 230,000 extra tradespeople needed by 2020, it’s essential that we take a proactive stance on improving productivity and recruitment within the construction industry. The skills shortage impacts every level of the supply chain, but as manufacturers we’re in a position to implement real change at all levels of the  construction process – from  contractors to apprentices.”