This week the Australian Financial Review reported on a meeting of Sydney builders concerned about the bricklaying sector slowing down the housing boom in that city. The cost of laying a thousand bricks has reportedly soared from $900 to over $1,500.

The root of the problem, they say, is simply not enough brickies. They claim apprentice numbers are down, and bricklaying isn’t viewed as an attractive option by budding apprentices.

That’s the narrative in NSW, and it’s a story we’re starting to hear from Queensland builders who say they’re struggling to find brickies to complete their projects. So it’s worth thinking about how Queensland is faring, because if economists are right and housing construction continues to bounce back, we might risk running into a brick wall.

To begin with, we looked at how many new brickies Queensland’s apprentice system is turning out (see charts below), and if there’s any truth to the rumours that numbers are down. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious cause for concern, at least as far as apprentices go.

<b>Stock of bricklaying apprentices rebounding strongly compared to big trades</b><br>Construction Apprentices In-training at 31 December, Qld
<b>Apprentice bricklayers are being turned out in-step with history and other trades</b><br>Construction Apprentice Completions, Qld

The apprenticeship data casts a different light on the reports we’ve been getting from the coalface, so we dug a little deeper into the bricklaying workforce as-a-whole. The number of bricklayers in general could be dropping faster than the growth in apprentices can pick up the slack. Yet numbers of bricklayers in Queensland have been reasonably stable. Certainly nothing in this picture screams ‘skills shortage.’

<b>No indication of a decline in the bricklaying workforce</b><br>Employed Bricklayers, Qld

Of course, supply means nothing without demand and it’s possible that the supply of bricklayers has been stable while demand has been outstripping it to the point of a skills shortage. To test this theory we look to housing commencements.

We know that the majority of bricks produced in Australia go into detached housing construction (up to 85% this year according to IBISWorld’s estimate), so we might expect to see high demand for brickies reflected in this market’s movements. Yet the next chart doesn’t seem to bear this out; things are certainly on the up for house builders, but starts are still below the 10-year average.

<b>Housing starts improving but not rocketing off the chart</b><br>Private Housing Commencements, Qld (MAT)

As one final step we overlay the housing data on the employment data to get a rough gauge of the balance between supply and demand for bricklayers. Again, this chart suggests nothing out-of-the-ordinary. Over the last five years, the size of the bricklaying workforce has actually been holding-up better than housing starts, compared to their respective 10-year averages.

<b>Bricklaying workforce is holding up better than housing starts</b><br>Employed Bricklayers vs Private Housing Starts, Qld

So on the numbers, with history and other trades as our barometer, there’s no evidence of a shortage of bricklayers in Queensland, nor any immediately apparent need for a significant course correction in terms of their training.

Yet as with any analysis of this type—which aggregates a complex state market into a single number—the data may well be hiding regional variation. It’s very possible that there are genuine shortages of bricklayers in specific localities around the state which are not revealed in this analysis.

Another possibility is that the shortage being reported by some in the industry doesn’t actually have anything to do with the quantity of bricklayers, so much as their quality. There could be, for example, plenty of applicants for bricklaying jobs, but they may not measure-up to employers’ requirements. This notion is supported by a recent report from the federal Department of Education, whose survey of employers found that 75% of bricklayer applicants were unsuitable.

If this is the case, we certainly do have a skills problem with bricklayers in this state. But the problem is not one of a ‘shortage’ in the traditional sense of the term, and cannot be cured with the usual prescriptions for more apprentices, more new entrants. The answer might have more to do with a focus on workforce development and fostering employer commitment to training existing workers.

Further research in this area to unpack the nature of the problem, if indeed there is one, may be needed.