Not as rich as you think
Observations on plumbers
It is extraordinary how a couple of well-placed news stories can transform perceptions. One week the building industry is a refuge for footpads and ne'er-do-wells, who will charge you a sneaky £80 an hour to fix a dripping tap. The next it is a respectable career choice for well-bred Oxford graduates, who will charge you a respectable £80 an hour to, er, fix a dripping tap.
The Oxford graduate in question is Nicola Gillison, who was featured widely on the news pages recently because, after four years working as an IT consultant at the City firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, she decided to jack it all in and retrain as a plumber. Exactly why Gillison, 27 and blonde, made an impact with the picture editors is open to debate, but it is notable that all the stories were accompanied by tales of the £100,000-a-year plumber.
This 100-grand-a-year plumber must be quite a mover. Not only does he earn this fabulous wad, but nobody in the industry has ever heard of him. It seems that he is, sadly, a figment of journalists' fevered imaginations. In all probability, the story was based upon a pub interview with the wide-boy boss of a Yellow Pages emergency call-out plumbing company. These guys can quite easily shift a hundred grand, but they are businessmen, not plumbers. They make their profits by overcharging their customers and underpaying their workers. I don't think that's quite what Gillison had in mind.
The other recent headline-grabbing story has been the supposed £55,000 pay deal for skilled construction workers on Heathrow Airport's new Terminal Five project, which has also resulted in some contradictory messages on the nation's news pages.
On the one hand, there have been a few "I told you so" stories from the doom-mongers, who claim that trained builders are now so scarce that they can name their own price. On the other, there is thinly disguised glee that the dignity of labour has at last been rediscovered, that the free market has arrived at a price which recognises the importance of construction skills to the nation's economy, and that from now on our feckless youth will eschew degrees in pop music studies and knuckle down to learning a good old trade.
Unfortunately, this story was equally selective with the facts. Closer inspection reveals that for a 48-hour, six-day week on site, some skilled workers will be able to earn a basic £600 - above the usual rates, certainly, but hardly earth-shattering. They will start earning the big money only if they get an additional £400-a-week productivity bonus. If the whole project proceeds according to plan, and the maximum bonus is achieved every week of the year, then, yes, individuals could hit the £50,000 mark. But it's not guaranteed.
There are plenty of reasons for getting into the building game, but getting rich quick is not one of them.
Jeff Howell is a bricklayer and building columnist for the Sunday Telegraph