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Father to son businesses undergo revival in the face of a precarious job market
19 Jun

Father to son businesses undergo revival in the face of a precarious job market

AXA study finds young men are increasingly choosing to follow in the dad’s footsteps when choosing their occupation. The building trades in particular have seen a renaissance in father-to-son firms, as Millennials value a solid ‘trade for life’ over navigating a precarious job market.

Far from being a legacy of the past, the father-to-son business is undergoing a revival, being most enthusiastically taken up by the Millennial generation (aged 35 and under). Fifteen per cent of young business owners say they took over the family firm, double the number of older people (six per cent).

The results vary greatly between occupations, however: a tradesman’s son is four times more likely to follow his dad’s occupation than the rest of the population. In the building trades, 26 per cent of people say they learnt their trade from their dad, and one in five trace their trade back to their grandfather’s generation. In retail, 15 per cent took up dad’s occupation, and just six per cent in graduate professions.

The building trades have seen a sharp acceleration in father-to-son businesses over the past generation. Almost half (45 per cent) of tradesmen in the 18-35 category say their dad was a tradesman (compared to 23 per cent across previous generations).

Long-term job stability (“there is always work”, “people will always need us”) was the top reason for young men to take up dad’s trade. This is particularly understandable, given that in a separate study, AXA found the average 25 year old today has already changed jobs four time, and most people will make a major career change once every decade, making a ‘job for life’ today’s Holy Grail for the young2.

Another emerging trend is for young men to adopt the trade of their granddad, after a blip in their dad’s generation towards, transport and clerical-professional jobs. Some typical scenarios for the granddad, dad and son generations of a family are: Builder - Office Clerk – Builder, Miner – Plumber – Plumber, and Soldier/Plasterer, Driver, Plasterer.

Out of all occupations (not just in the building trades, plastering and decorating businesses have the strongest family business tradition, as over one third are father-to-son.

Why the building trades?

Seventy six per cent of tradespeople surveyed said they would recommend their trade to a young person starting out today (that was 90 per cent in the plumbing trades). Good income levels, and high job satisfaction (“I've done it for 45 years and the rewards are many. Building Care-homes, restoring monuments and improving social housing are worthwhile and good for the soul”) were quoted almost as much as job stability.

Ray & Chris W Stephens

Chris Stephens (34), who followed his dad and granddad into London plumbing and heating firm W Stephens & Sons: “My own son was born this week, and I feel I am building this business for him, just as my dad, uncle and granddad did for me. It is a good career for a young person today: treat your customers well, and you’ll have independence and a good life, and you will always have work.”

“We have customers that go as far back as the 1960’s, and we’ve gone through everything together. A lot’s changed since my granddad started out in 1945 carrying his tools on his bicycle around London. He wouldn’t recognise the trade, the technologies have changed so much, but we’ve adapted and we’ve survived through recession and everything life can throw at us.”

While the family tradition is overwhelmingly a male one in the building trades (unsurprisingly, given that just 5.2 per cent of tradespeople are women today), AXA did find evidence that ‘& Daughter’ businesses are a small, but growing, tradition there too. Seventeen per cent of tradeswomen say they were inspired by their dad to take up a trade, accounting for an estimated 15,600 building firms in the UK today3.

Gareth Howell, Managing Director, AXA Insurance, comments: “University costs have soared in a generation, while automation, zero hours culture and Brexit make many of the UK sectors that previously drove social mobility look uncertain. Returning to a family business tradition, makes absolute sense. There are no or very low training costs if you’re largely learning your skills from family members. You have a living stake in your business, and threats like redundancy are less likely than when you’re working for strangers.”

“There is also a lasting legacy to pass to your children, which is more secure than property or money on paper. The building trades are one of the areas that lend themselves best to inter-generational businesses given the resilience of the core skills to change. As long as humans exist, it’s likely they’ll need homes built and maintained.”