Constructing an industry for the 21st century

The construction industry is replenishing the UK’s housing stock, building new infrastructure and helping restore the economy, but challenges remain if it is to attract and retain a forward-looking workforce

Money talks, but people count. Construction contributes £92 billion a year to UK economic output. However, to appreciate the true scale of the industry, it pays to think instead in terms of people and jobs, all 2.1 million of them.

Driving construction to work, every day, would require 262,500 double-decker buses, full to standing. That would be enough to jam a three-lane motorway, nose-to tail, for almost 600 miles.

The same data, however, also explains why construction is concerned about recruitment and retention of talent going forward, making the skills gap a hot topic.

Taking growth job markets in sustainability, as an example, construction, for all its environmental and social issues and impacts, is just not a preferred option, says Dawn Love, head of environment and sustainability at Taylor Woodrow. “The simple fact is that sustainability professionals are not considering construction as a viable career choice. The industry still has an image issue and the innovative work we do doesn’t often make the headlines. Most sustainability professionals get into construction by accident,” she says.

Construction sector's contribution to the economy

Relying on happy accidents is obviously not a credible business plan. There are, though, signs of progress, according to Ms Love. “My hope and vision is that the work done on the diversity agenda, which has evolved into ‘fairness, inclusion and respect’, helps to change the culture of construction. We have come a long way in the last 20 years; however, we have a long way to go in the next 20 to make it somewhere to attract bright, young talents from all walks of life and retain them.”

On-boarding new hires is only half the story. Retention, though, is not all about pay and promotion. In a modern millennial-minded working environment, social and cultural initiatives to tackle issues, such as mental health, plus flexibility around personal and family commitments, are key enablers of long-term employment. So, how is construction progressing in its attitude and approach to looking after the health and wellbeing of existing staff?

In January, the Considerate Constructors Scheme introduced mental health assessment into its checklist, with positive feedback according to chairman Mike Petter. “We are starting to see an encouraging response from many sites regarding this matter – some are at the information-and-guidance stage and others are looking at provision of mental health first-aiders.”

Collaboration, alliancing, interface engineering and information management will become core skills

This represents a new criterion, over and above existing concern for general wellbeing. Mr Petter adds: “Many projects and companies provide general health and welfare information. This might be in the form of awareness posters for various cancers, healthy eating and dehydration. On the very best sites we see the workforce offered literacy and numeracy support and guidance.”

Such considerate behaviours on site are symptoms of an emerging spirit of industry tolerance and inclusivity. In short, construction is learning to care.

This progression forms part of a broader transition that casts construction personnel more as professional problem-solvers, in the business world of 2015 and beyond. The advent of digital working, including building information modelling, with an accompanying increase in automation and off-site construction, will herald a wider shift in skillsets, argues Martin Perks, divisional director at Mott MacDonald. “Stakeholders are likely to become more numerous and more sophisticated, and the commercial complexities more subtle, given the collaborative working involved in digital delivery. End-user expectations will continue to rise, with more voices becoming prominent in the process,” he says.

“Collaboration, alliancing, interface engineering and information management will therefore become core skills. We thus see a gradual pivot of our traditional core, more towards analysis, interpretation, interpersonal and ‘soft’ skills.”

This more collaborative, inclusive model for the future of construction supports values of openness and transparency, suitably aligned with corporate social responsibility agendas of corporate clients. It also speaks to a learning culture that is alive to global market opportunities, international relations and the exporting of skills.

Such a worldview, with global capacity and capabilities, is good for business, says John Alker, director of policy and communications at the UK Green Building Council. “Cross-border collaboration and sharing of best practice are key. The UK is a global leader in sustainable design and construction, and exporting its knowledge and expertise not only helps other countries with low-carbon development, but in the case of commercial buildings, could contribute an estimated £1.7 billion to UK GDP,” he says.

Financial reward is not the only potential benefit to be manifest back home. Reflecting on the LEED Platinum – US green building certification – design for Siemens Middle East HQ in Abu Dhabi, Alan Shingler, a partner at Sheppard Robson, describes the win-win scenarios possible. “Working internationally is a two-way street – UK practices that are hired to export their talents across the world inevitably broaden their range of experience, and in turn import skills and knowledge back into the UK,” he says.

“New constraints, objectives and context push you to challenge convention and seek new ideas to improve design performance. Working at Masdar City [Abu Dhabi], with its extreme climate, stringent key performance indicators and design-savvy occupiers, put issues of efficiency and performance into acute focus.”

Built environment metrics are also informing a bigger-picture, people-centric context. The Living Building Challenge (LBC), as well as setting stringent standards for water and energy use, also tackles topics including equity, health and happiness, beauty and education. Such a remit clearly adds up in today’s markets, according to UK LBC ambassador Martin Brown. “Increasingly, construction is being measured on social outcomes, in addition to financial performance. For many client organisations, utility costs are small in comparison to staff costs, so creating buildings that provide healthy and happy places, free of toxic materials, just makes good sense,” he says.

Tomorrow promises not just to be another day, but a whole new world for construction – the future is caring and sharing.