DESPITE the global financial downturn, there are more Oxfordshire people working in the construction industry than a decade ago, new figures have revealed.
The 2011 census shows there were 23,104 people employed in construction compared with 19,480 in 2001, a rise of more than 18 per cent.
But while bigger firms say business is on the up, smaller operators in the trade say they are struggling.
Steve Clarkson, of Apex Construction, has run the Kennington-based business for 27 years. He employs 15 staff, down from 20 in the last three years.
The 46-year-old said: “It is very very competitive because there are more people out there doing it and willing to do it at a very low fee.
“There is not enough work out there to go round.
“Lots of builders I know are really struggling.
“Joe Public is not really spending money on building work unless they have to.”
He said his turnover has fallen from up to £1m per year to about £600,000 this year.
Carpenter Brian Melrose, 60, of B P Building and Carpentry Ltd, started his Jericho-based business in 1979.
He said turnover was “phenomenal” in 2001 but has “steadily gone down” since 2006.
Ten years ago he employed 20 sub-contractors and had a turnover of up to £200,000; now he has two sub-contractors and a turnover of £50,000.
But not every firm is suffering, with some county businesses saying the industry is in its best shape for years.
John Youle, director of building firm Beard, has seen the workforce in its largest office at Cumnor Hill grow from 40 to 70 in 10 years.
He said: “The general perception is that construction is just housebuilding but that is only a small part of the industry. There was a lot of growth before 2007 and it stuttered and stalled but we have continued to grow.
“Most work is in education, which makes up 30 per cent of the Oxford economy.”
Towns such as Didcot and Bicester have expanded in recent years with thousands of homes built in new estates such as Great Western Park and Kingsmere.
Mr Youle said: “That is a sign of the local economy thriving. Firms won’t build houses unless there is someone to buy or rent them.
“And for every person we employ, there are probably five more sub-contractors.”
Beard’s current projects include a £1m contract to renew part of the roof at Oxford’s National History Museum and building a new £4m school science block at St Helen and St Katharine in Abingdon.
Dr George Blumberg is chairman of the Oxfordshire Constructing Excellence Group and a lecturer in real estate and construction at Oxford Brookes University.
He said: “There are signs things are picking up.
“Recently there has been a lot of activity among designers and consultants who are working on bids for projects such as the Westgate centre in Oxford, while colleges such as Wolfson and St Johns have erected new buildings.”
Few till soil in modern world of worK
IN 1841 when the UK’s first modern census was carried out most workers in Oxfordshire described themselves as agricultural labourers.
At the time there were 17,727 of them – plus another 2,383 people who said they were farmers and “graziers” – but now agriculture only accounts for 3,049 jobs in the county.
Charlie Gee, a farmer based in Oxford, said: “That is just the way it is.
“People are going for easier jobs now. Farming has long hours and it is not very well paid.”
The 2011 census shows education accounts for 16,452 jobs in Oxford — nearly a quarter of 70,000 jobs in the city.
But in 1841 there were only 530 schoolmasters, mistresses, tutors or governesses, 34 “university officers” and two librarians.
Some trades have disappeared, such as bone-dealer, oatmeal maker and keeper of a lunatic asylum.
Ian Barnes is a bookbinder based in Headington. He says there are few left now, although 112 people described themselves as bookbinders, publishers or booksellers in 1841.
He said: “I don’t think people see it as a career but we are busy. Kindles are not going to replace it.”
EMPLOYMENT IN 1841
Oxfordshire had a working population of 161,643 compared with 334,419 in 2011.
Nearly 4,000 people were described as being of “independent means” while 128 were “lunatics”.
Other trades included:
Barometer maker x 1
Bonnet maker x 29
Button (Pearl) maker x 1
Ginger Beer-maker x 1
Hatter x 49
Hawker, Huckster and Pedlar x 94
Hemp dealer x 1
Knitter x 2
Rag-dealer and gatherer x16