Posted by Fabrick on 13 June 2019

The image of construction is something the sector has struggled with for some time. It’s one of the biggest industries and one that everyone involved in speaks so passionately about – but we are facing a massive skills shortage and seem to lack the ability to provide a concise profile that provides the hook to entice young people to wish to join. So what do we need to do?

The image of construction was the focus of a construction marketing forum at the House of Lords last month. The event, organised by CIMCIG (Chartered Institute of Marketing – Construction Industry Group), saw a keynote address by Mark Farmer, the author of the ‘Farmer Review’ that backs ‘modernise or die. It also included a Q&A panel debate with panellists including Sadie Morgan of dRMM, Mark Reynolds, Chief Executive of Mace Group, Sam Stacey of Transforming Construction and Jade Lewis of St. Gobain Group.

These high profile speakers are great ambassadors for the industry and know all too well how the sector is struggling. For example, Famer, in his 2016 review - commissioned by the Construction Leadership Council at the request of the government – concluded that the industry must ‘modernise or die.’ The question is, some three years later, have we listened, and if so, what have we achieved?

The report investigated the industry’s labour model and proposed actions to safeguard the industry’s future. This included addressing problems such as the sector’s dysfunctional training model, its lack of innovation and collaboration, and its non-existent research and development (R&D) culture. It also flagged up that more people leave the industry each year than join it - the construction workforce is shrinking, placing increasing constraints on its capacity to build housing and infrastructure.

Three years later these are all topics we are still talking about – what we need however is action.

Sam Stacey pointed out that the construction industry is almost the last of the big industries to be reformed and that maybe we need a catalyst to instigate major change. As an example, look at the motor industry. The UK has a great tradition of automotive design and engineering but back in the late 70s, we started to lag behind the rest of the world. It was when the Japanese car manufacturers came to the UK that the likes of British Leyland realised that had to ‘modernise or die’. If they didn’t change their process – how they design, how they build – they would be pushed out of the industry. With the recent announcement of Japanese’s offsite manufacturer investing in Tom Boxham’s Urban Splash, have we begun to see a similar trend start?

However, the topic of the event was not so much modernisation but the image of construction – something the sector has suffered from for many years. Granted modernisation and image are related but the sector’s image – or poor image – goes way beyond how modern it is perceived by outsiders.

It is something of a conundrum. It is widely recognised that the construction industry has a poor image. However, speak to anyone who works in the sector and they will tell you what an exciting, rewarding and diverse sector it is. It seems that once you are in the construction industry, you are in for life and no matter what you do – from engineering to architecture, procurement to project management, the industry offers a wealth of career paths and opportunities to grow and progress. However, the problem lies with getting new entrants into the industry.

Sometimes we don’t help ourselves. It was highlighted during the debate that with the growth of social media channels comes the fixation with ‘likes for laughs’ content. This is humorous video content that is easily shared and often goes viral. There is an increasing number of construction based ‘likes for laughs’ videos but in almost all instances, there is a victim – someone that has fallen foul of a prank. Further, they tend to be the junior member of staff. This content will do little to encourage young people to join an industry where ‘hazing’ or pranking is seemingly widespread; it will also do little to encourage parents to support these children into the industry – what parent would want their child to join a sector where they are likely to be pranked?

Now this might seem a little harsh as this is an isolated example but we don’t do ourselves any favours in many other areas. Take the delays to Crossrail. There has been a lot of talk about the time delays and cost overruns. However, what people are missing the point on – as identified by Mark Reynolds - is that we are replacing a highly complex transport system that is over a hundred years old and the new system will provide state of the art transport for millions of people for decades to come. It is also one of the most complex infrastructure projects currently being undertaken. So what is a delay of a few months when the long-term benefit will improve the lives of generations to come?

With all major infrastructure projects there are going to be challenges but we should be talking about the long-term benefits of what the project will bring when it is complete, not the fact that it has been delayed slightly. As an industry we seem to be too eager to talk about out shortcomings rather than our successes – a case of glass half empty. This needs to change, we need to change the narrative.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. It was interesting to hear from Sadie Morgan about how, as chair of the independent design panel for HS2, she is changing the way we – as the industry – look at future projects. Rather than asking a panel of 50 year olds what a project should look like and what it should deliver, the initiative has been taken to speak to those that will benefit. Sadie pointed out that all too often on major infrastructure projects, decisions are being made by people who are unlikely to be around when they are complete. Instead, it makes sense to talk to a younger generation about what they want as they will be the beneficiaries. So does this work? Well, in short, yes. The project team posted an ad on the Government’s website for a panel of 13 20 year olds who would provide advice and guidance on what they would like to see. The result was over 500 applications, clearly showing that our younger generation is actively interested in what the future - their future – will hold.

As an industry, we know we need to change and I do believe that there are pockets of activity that are pushing in the right direction and helping to facilitate this change. However, they are small and the problem is big. We all need to work together more closely if we are to make giant strides forward. With help from the industry, these small activities can quickly become a major initiative and change will happen. Let’s face it, change has to happen. If we don’t change, we do run the risk of dying and that is something we simply cannot allow to happen.

David Ing, Managing Director, Fabrick

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