What's it really like?
Kevin Rowland was a bricklayer at 17. Now 40, he owns and runs his own construction firm, K & N Brickwork, which takes on contracts from private homes to Virgin Active gyms. He tells us a little about his career.
"I started as a bricklayer at 17 when I left school. I didn’t have too many options so it was just the best fit for me at the time, but I grew to really love it. It was great to work hard at a job that I was good at and that didn’t leave me going to the same office every day. It’s also been a very good trade for me financially.
After a while I did get a bit sick of the early start times, and when you’re working contracts you run the risk of ending up working for unreliable employers, so I decided to go into business for myself about seven years ago. This was around the time that there started to be a shortage of good bricklayers, and the business grew very quickly.
Since I try to keep good working relationships with all of my staff, I always get skilled people working for me. Now I mainly spend my time travelling between sites and supervising the work to maintain our high quality standards.
If I could give any advice to someone just starting out in the business it would be to try and develop specific skills. Experienced bricklayers will always be in demand, but there is such a shortage that architects have started to reduce the need for brickwork from their designs.
It means that the buildings aren’t as high quality, but that’s just the market. If you can do something like cladding or stonemasonry as well as brickwork then you can pick up some specialist jobs as well, making yourself more marketable.
Bricklayers build and repair walls inside and outside of properties as well as working on other kinds of brickwork, such as tunnel walls and chimney stacks.
The job of a bricklayer is to construct the first shell of a building, whether it is a house, a school, a bridge or any other construction. Without a bricklayer, the building simply does not get made. A good bricklayer makes the walls waterproof, weatherproof and secure because no-one wants to be in a building which is leaky, cold and in danger of being broken into.
With government spending plans for the next few years focused largely on the construction of new houses and schools, good bricklayers will soon be in great demand. This means that it has the potential to provide an extremely secure career choice.
An inexperienced or unskilled bricklayer will earn up to £15,000 per year. With a formal qualification this can be boosted to between £16,000 and £23,000, and experienced and qualified bricklayers can earn as much as £30,000 per year.
With enough experience you can even set up as an independent craftsman, at which point you can ask for whatever fee your work demands.
Typical responsibilities include:
- Cutting bricks to size using hammers, chisels or power tools.
- Laying the bricks in horizontal layers (courses).
- Measuring out the work area and laying the first courses according to the architect’s plans.
- Mixing mortar, either by hand or with a mixing machine.
- Spreading mortar evenly to fix the bricks into place.
- Ensuring that the line of the wall is totally straight and level. For this a spirit level or plumb line may be used.
- Making access holes in the walls to allow electricians, plumbers and other workers to bring water, electricity and commodities into the building.
Bricklaying is a very open career as you don’t need any formal qualifications. However, the more technically skilled you are, the higher your wage will be. There are some basic courses available which could increase your starting salary.
The best way into the business is to get an apprenticeship with a building firm as you’ll then be being paid to learn. How easy it is to get an apprenticeship depends on your local area, but the government is trying to create more positions. You will usually require GCSEs in English and technical subjects, such as maths or design & technology, in order to begin the apprenticeship.
Some firms may already require you to have a basic building qualification before you start your apprenticeship. The most widely accepted of these qualifications is the Edexcel Introductory Certificate or Diploma in Construction.
There are also college courses which can prepare you for a bricklaying career. These include:
- The Edexcel First Diploma in Construction (which has bricklaying options)
- The City & Guilds Basic Skills in Construction Award in Bricklaying
- The Intermediate/Advanced Construction Award (Trowel Occupations – Bricklaying).
Many employers are now also asking for you to have a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card. This basically lets them know that you are safe to work on-site, but to get one you need a formal qualification, such as a Trowel Occupations NVQ, and you need to pass a health and safety test.
These qualifications should be enough to help you start your career, but you can take further qualifications whilst working to increase your employability. The NVQ in Trowel Occupations has two advanced levels which teach further skills in laying out work areas, mixing different types of mortars, laying different types of bricks and building advanced masonry structures.
To be a bricklayer you will need:
- Good practical skills.
- The ability to work carefully and accurately.
- The ability to work as part of a team.
- A good awareness of health and safety issues (especially when carrying heavy loads at great heights).
- An ability to read technical plans.
- A good level of fitness.
Bricklayers normally work for 39 hours per week. These hours may change depending on the season and the amount of available daylight. Evening, weekend and all-night overtime shifts are not unusual in order to finish a project on time.
Working outside in all weathers is to be expected, as is a certain amount of moving around. You will often be asked to move from site-to-site and, although the sites will usually be fairly local, you may also have to work away from home. In this case, you will usually have your accommodation and food provided and will also be paid at a higher level than usual.
You’ll spend most of your time on building sites, which can prove quite dangerous without precautions. However, you will be trained in Health and Safety, and will also be issued with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) by your employer. This will always include a safety helmet and workboots, but for some jobs gloves, goggles, ear defenders and even a safety harness may need to be used. It is not unusual to be working high up or in noisy or dusty conditions.
As much of your working time is spent up a ladder or on scaffolding, bricklaying can be dangerous. You need an excellent head for heights and a constant awareness of health and safety
On the upside, you will be working in the fresh air and doing practical work in a job which offers many prospects. Highly trained British construction workers are in demand around the globe, so there are many opportunities to travel, and short-term overseas contracts can offer high financial rewards.
Due to the fact that it is extremely physically demanding, bricklaying is a predominantly male profession. However, there are almost 233,000 female bricklayers in the country, so opportunities certainly exist for women to join the profession. Further details can be found at Know Your Place.
Bricklayers need on-site experience, and a short period of unskilled labouring can be a good way of getting this experience before attempting to start a career as a bricklayer. Inexperienced bricklayers may start out as support labourers for a more experienced team. This involves carrying the bricks and mortar so that the more skilled workmen don’t have to stop work to go and fetch supplies. Once you are trained (or doing on-the-job training) your wage will depend upon your experience.
As a bricklayer, your most regular tools will be your trowels. These come in two different types: the brick trowel and the pointing trowel. The brick trowel is used for laying and smoothing the mortar to cement the bricks into place. Larger brick trowels also have a rounded edge for the ‘rough cutting’ of bricks (although this is not recommended for inexperienced bricklayers).
The pointing trowel is much smaller and is used for more detailed work, such as fitting mortar between previously laid bricks (pointing) or putting a finish on brickwork. Many bricklayers also invest in a 'hawk', a board with a handle on the bottom, which is used to carry a small supply of mortar.
You will also need a spirit level to ensure that your layers (or courses) are horizontal, and a plumb line to ensure that they are vertical.
You need to be able to cut bricks to size. This also requires the use of specialist tools, but you can make some of these yourself. For example, a brick bat gauge (used to standardise brick size) or a gauge rod (used to ensure that all of the courses are equally thick) can be easily made from wooden off-cuts.
You will also need a lump or club hammer (essentially a very heavy hammer), a bolster (a large thick chisel used for the actual cutting) and a cold chisel (a smaller chisel used for tidying up cuts).
As bricklaying work is mostly done through short-term contracts, most work is available through specialist construction agencies like Hill McGlynn, although regular employment agencies such as Reed often handle construction jobs as well.
Building contractors such as Taylor Woodrow or Bovis are a good source of steady work, as are local authorities, who regularly require building work or repairs to be done. The Army is also a large employer of bricklayers.
Large construction companies such as Barratt Homes, Redrow, Bryant and Persimmon are the biggest and most stable employers for construction workers. In larger towns and cities, working for such companies can mean less need to travel, and there may also be more opportunities for talented workers to climb through the ranks.
Experienced bricklayers can go on to become self-employed or start their own construction businesses. They can also train for specialist work such as stonemasonry, restoration or conservation. They may also become construction technicians and can move from this position to a supervisory job, such as a clerk of works or a construction manager. There is even a market for experienced bricklayers to move into education, helping the next generation of workers to enter into the industry.