THE construction industry grew at the slowest pace in seven months in May but economists said the outlook remained strong amid a boom in housebuilding.

The Markit/CIPS construction PMI, which measures building activity, edged lower to 60 in May from 60.8, mainly reflecting slowing growth in commercial space such as offices, shops and warehouses.

However, it was still well above the 50 mark which separates expansion from contraction, and was only just below economists' expectations of no change from 60.8.

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Housebuilding continued to grow at the fastest rate in the industry, albeit at a slightly slower pace than April.

A positive sign is that employment in the sector rose for the twelfth month in a row and at a slightly faster pace than April.

It comes as a leading figure in the industry appealed for contractors to take on more civil engineering trainees in North-East.

John Dickson, retiring chairman of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (North East), makes the plea in his final annual report, asking the organisation’s 73 member firms between Berwick and Whitby to add another trainee to their workforce in expectation of workloads eventually emerging in the region at a rate nearer that already evident elsewhere in the country.

Mr Dickson said: “It’s perhaps understandable, but with considerable regret, that the number of new entrants into our sector of the construction industry continues to be low, especially since our initiatives, over recent years, have been successful in promoting our sector as a career for school leavers.

“It has never been a better time for grants in support. So even in this still difficult period for us, I am appealing for each firm to consider taking on one new trainee. Our industry’s future depends on it.”

Civils growth in the North-East was recently estimated at 2 per cent following a stagnant three years, against 10 per cent in the South – and since the 2 per cent has been in a poor market against 10 per cent in a market worth billions that means the gap is actually widening, CECA (NE) director Douglas Kell has pointed out.

However Owen Pugh Group, of which Mr Dickson is chairman has continued to recruit young people on full time permanent contracts, paying more than apprentices commonly receive. “We are training them to do what we need them to do - not what a funder wants to pay them to learn,” he explained.

His appeal came as CECA (NE) named Gareth Giles, 25, the North East’s trainee of the year. Gareth, of Gateshead, is a site engineer with Balfour Beatty, and a graduate of Newcastle University. Originally from Lewisham, London, he has now made the North-East his home. He was also named most promising trainee civil engineer.

Also from Balfour Beatty, Caroline Williams, 29, of Waterhouses, County Durham, was named the most promising trainee quantity surveyor. Caroline, holder of two degrees – one gained part-time - had to overcome the disappointment of a previous redundancy and the difficulty of meeting course fees prior to her present job, in which she has worked on a park and ride scheme at York and projects for Northumbrian Water.

Most promising apprentice award went to Tom Thornton, 21, of Newton Aycliffe. An aspiring foreman joiner, he has worked on major projects for Sir Robert McAlpine, including Science Central mixed development at Newcastle and AkzoNobel’s new £100m paint manufacturing centre at Ashington.

Mr Dickson added: “Our industry offers a wide range of good career opportunities, not only on site work but also in information technology and other support functions.”