Almost one in three firms have seen a fall in their workload during the first six months of 2012, according to a survey carried out by the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES).

The downturn has been most evident in the North East of England, Yorkshire and Scotland, as well as in the residential heating sector, although the survey also suggests that the rate of decline is slowing down.

A total of 50% of respondents said that tender prices are lower than they were six months ago, and that, while labour costs had remained more or less static, there had been a significant increase in the cost of materials.

Unsurprisingly, given the continuing low levels of business, direct employment has fallen across the board, and skills shortages do not appear to be of great concern to the majority of respondents – 61% of whom have not taken on an apprentice or trainee in the past year.

In this context, members acknowledged the likely further growth in demand for such technologies over the next few years – and the consequent need to provide appropriate training and to attract new blood into the industry.

Among the Association’s specialists, members of the Service & Facilities Group have coped best during the recession, with members of both the Ductwork Group and the Heating & Plumbing Services Group having suffered most deeply.

Members believe that the major factors adversely affecting business growth are late payment, tight margins and insolvency further up the contractual chain, while increased investment by the public sector was cited as the key driver for growth.

The survey, which covered the period January to June 2012, was conducted online by independent research organisation Lychgate Projects Ltd, and was supported by telephone interviews with representatives of some of the sectors biggest players.

In all, over 200 B&ES members took part. B&ES has already commissioned a further state of trade survey covering the second half of 2012, and expects to repeat the exercise six-monthly thereafter.