The Association of Brickwork Contractors’ (ABC) Assessment Centre has launched an innovative training programme aimed at upskilling candidates in a range of modern masonry techniques. Primarily designed to further professionals’ abilities in evolving on-site processes, the programme has been rolled out to Further Education establishments, allowing students to gain hands-on bricklaying experience within their own learning environment. Tony Higson, Commercial Director at ACS Stainless Steel Fixings, has been a supporter of the ABC Assessment Centre since it was founded in 2018. Here he explains his company’s partnership with the Centre and its drive to train and inspire the next generation of ‘brickies’.


How did ACS become involved with the ABC Assessment Centre?

In recognition of the UK’s bricklayer shortage, ACS developed a learning support programme (Build a Brickie) to support schools and colleges with previously expensive resources. To this, we donated materials such as wall ties, masonry support, lintels, channels and windposts free of charge, and in return asked tutors and students to publish pictures of them using the products via social media. Following contact with Eve Livett, CEO at the Association of Brickwork Contractors, the Build a Brickie initiative was integrated into the ABC Assessment Centre’s own programme. The short-level courses devised by ABC have taken our original concept to a whole new level.


Why is important that training programmes, such as those initiated by the Assessment Centre, exist? 

The problem with historic college courses is that the syllabus was not fit for purpose in terms of the modern day bricklayer. Its format meant students were lacking knowledge of modern bricklaying methods. Therefore, when they arrived on an industrial or commercial building site, their skillset fell short of requirements. So that essentially spelt the end for traditional bricklaying courses in schools and colleges.


Tell us about the excellent hands-on training tool you’ve helped develop for the ABC Assessment Centre

We’ve helped ABC with the design and manufacture of a 6m x 3m training wall that can be assembled and reconfigured. It is designed to give students a taste of what they’re likely to encounter on a modern building site within the confines of their school or college building. The metal frame has concrete elements, which allows for the practising of a wide range of bricklaying techniques. Having spent a year working on a prototype, ABC has approved our mode and an initial batch of 25 building frames will be sent to colleges across the UK. We’re creating them and dispensing them for free. I suppose it’s our way of giving something back to the bricklaying industry.


To what do you attribute the UK’s bricklayer shortage?

The UK construction industry is short of tradespeople across the board, but the bricklayer situation is particularly concerning and needs urgent address. Bricklayers can earn up to £250 per day, which is good money. Perhaps, though, the job itself is considered by younger people to be a bit unsexy. But we need to get more bricklayers out on site. If we don’t, then architects and developers will look at materials other than brick with which to create buildings. Speaking on behalf of a company that manufactures components designed to hold brick buildings together, that would be a very problematic outcome. Therefore, for us and many businesses like ours, it’s in our interests to engage with, train and recruit as many bricklayers as we can.


What makes brick such a favourable building material?

Brick is timeless. Whilst other more modern construction materials such as render and cedar cladding make a building look amazing in the short-term, after 18 months the UK weather leaves it looking terrible. That’s the beauty of masonry products such as brick and stone – the climate doesn’t affect them. They will look as natural and beautiful in 10, 25, 50 or 100 years’ time as they did when they were first in-situ. It takes a lot of remedial work and maintenance to keep a non-brick façade looking crisp, as no other material weathers as well as brick or stone.


Architecturally, it seems brick appears to be back on-trend. In your view, why might have it fallen out of favour as a building material?

For too long designers weren’t doing anything interesting with brick – they were creating buildings that looked all the same, like little red boxes. But recently, architects have begun mixing up stone and brick, as well as melding different colours and textures. It means nowadays the most beautiful buildings can be produced with brick, particularly with the way architects can use modern shadow and lighting techniques to create ingenious design effects.


Do you think promoting the idea of brick as a dynamic building resource, as consistently as its advocated as a traditional and reliable material, could be a way of attracting younger people to become bricklayers?

Younger architects are suddenly realising that you can create some wonderful things with a ‘boring’ brick, which could make a new generation of bricklayers sit up and take notice. But having said that design-wise it appeared brick was going through a bit of a renaissance, I’m not sure if it ever fell out of fashion. It’s a classic, and classics never go out of style.