My concern for and fascination with the magnitude of the skilled workforce crisis in Western markets is increasing every week. You can find some of my other research and thoughts I am having here, here and here.
This week I spent time on skilled bricklayers, and why we are in for a very rough ride. The bricklayer shortage in Europe and USA might have the highest gap between how many we need and how unattractive the job is (alongside jobs such as truck drivers).
(I’m using UK numbers, but very similar in US brick markets, Germany or France. You can access my entire spreadsheet open-source here)
If you’re like me, when you hear “bricks”, first thing you think of is red/clay bricks.
But the market and variations of bricks is much much wider in use.
By quality, you differentiate first-class to fourth-class bricks. Differences occur in smoothness of surface, sharpness of edges, strength, durability and consistent coloring.
By raw material, you find bricks made of clay, concrete, fly ash, sand lime, earth with relatively high aluminum content (”fire bricks”) and others.
Across those variations, the UK market for example uses 2.6 billion bricks every year. That’s billion with a B.
When using a few educated assumptions, you come to the following consumption breakdown in the UK:
With these assumptions, ca. 50% of bricks are used in residential and 50% in commercial projects. This will not be exact, but directionally a useful estimate.
That’s for the material (bricks).
The UK has 60’000 bricklayers currently in work. It needs 75’000 bricklayers to fulfil all building demand every year. A 20% gap, 15’000 bricklayers short in the UK alone. The latest World Economic Forum “Future of Jobs 2023” report uncovered that bricklayer is THE job reported short in the most European countries. Not electricians, not plumbers. Bricklayers.
On average, a bricklayer CAN lay 500 bricks per work day. Before you shout at me – yes a bricklayer can lay 700-900 bricks per day in a perfect environment for one hour in a bricklaying competition, but not over a day and certainly not over a year. On average, it’s around 500 per day that they CAN do.
However, we know from the factual numbers that the average bricks / day that a human bricklayer lays is actually only 170 bricks per day. We know this by dividing 2.6 billion bricks per year / 60’000 bricklayers in work = 43’333 bricks per year per bricklayer. Scaled to 250 work days, it gives 173 bricks per work day per bricklayer. The difference to the potential 500 per day is – overhead, travel time, work site prep, holidays, sick days.
In the UK market today, a junior bricklayer right after their apprenticeship will make around GBP 35’000 annual salary, and with a few years experience scale up to GBP 60’000 per year. Again, that’s today’s market. It’s expected that the same experienced bricklayer in 5-10 years will command around GBP 90’000 per year.
Their employer will charge for the labor (not the material) on average ca. GBP 450 per day. Again, can be much more if job is more complex or demands exceptional quality, but on average GBP 450 per day in invoiced revenue for the bricklaying work is a good average.
One robot can realistically lay 1’000 bricks per day, or 250’000 per year on a regular 250 work-days. That is not science fiction, it is being done, for example by this startup for US and European markets. A robot will need some form of supervision, but the supervision scales to a degree and the same supervisor can oversee a fleet of robots laying eg. 5’000 bricks per day.
By comparison, the human bricklayer lays 43’333 bricks per year.
Now, let’s be fair here and compare apples to apples. The robot doesn’t have to worry about overhead such as selling projects or writing invoices. That work remains with the human. We know from anecdotal evidence that this part of the overhead is ca. 50% of the work hours. Therefore, 43’333 / 50% = 86’667 bricks per year that a human could lay if they were to avoid the overhead the same way the robot does.
Comparing the 250k bricks for a bricklaying robot to the 87k bricks for a human bricklayer, that means one bricklayer robot can equal 2.9 human bricklayers.
In today’s salary terms, that’s a cost efficiency of GBP 170k per year. In future salaries, that cost saving will be closer to GBP 260k.
The other side of the same coin is what the bricklaying company invoices to their customers.
The invoiced revenue is 0.9 GBP per brick laid.
Let’s forget that a human bricklayer has overhead, and let’s assume their employer could invoice 250 work days @ 500 bricks per day. Which is impossible with all the admin, travel, work site prep. But let’s say they can get there. That’s an invoiceable revenue of GBP 113k per year. If they pay an experienced bricklayer the GBP 60k p.a. today, and have 30% additional salary cost incl. fuel and car (GBP 78k total), that’s a 31% gross margin on the invoiced human labor revenue.
One robot could invoice GBP 225k in bricklaying revenue (without material) per year. Let’s say it’s leasing/depreciation and maintenance costs the same per year as the human bricklayer (it doesn’t, but let’s go with it). That’s a 65% gross margin on the invoiced labor revenue from the bricklayer robot. In total, it’s incremental revenue of GBP +113K per year that the bricklaying firm will make.
And the best thing is: the robot doesn’t want a salary increase, no sick time, no holiday, and no threat of leaving to join a local competitor or start their own business to compete with you…
I’ll keep this one short, check my numbers below:
This means: By deploying 5’200 bricklaying robots in the UK (15’000 bricklayers short / 2.9 bricklayer equivalent of one robot), we can close the entire 15k bricklayer gap. By closing that gap, the 5’200 robots will help build 160’000+ incremental buildings across single-family homes (SFH), multi-family homes (MFH) and commercial buildings every year.
That’s massive impact on the economy.
I used UK numbers as an exemplary market because sources were so easily available. The numbers will be directionally similar for US markets that use bricks, France or Germany.
Calculations | civilclick.com/types-of-bricks | Construction Building Materials May 23 | manchesterbrick.com/brick-imports-rising-in-the-uk | State of Trade Survey Q1 2023 | Shortage of Bricklayers in the UK | How many bricklayers are there in the UK? | How many facing bricks can be laid in a day? | Brick Calculator | brickhunter.com/blog/how-much-do-bricks-cost | costworld-homes.com