Transforming construction’s image problem

Patricia Moore, managing director of UK Infrastructure at Turner & Townsend.

The high-profile mega-projects the industry will soon be delivering should be used as a publicity opportunity to boost the image of construction as an innovative, exciting and socially responsible sector, says Patricia Moore.

Britain’s infrastructure sector began 2017 with a spring in its step. With the three mega-projects - Hinkley Point C, HS2 and Heathrow’s third runway - all confirmed and the government championing infrastructure as an engine of job creation and economic growth, boom times seemingly lie ahead.

Yet despite the £2.3bn injection into infrastructure announced in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, there will be no blank cheque. January’s much-heralded Industrial Strategy made clear that infrastructure will face tough competition from the technology and manufacturing sectors, both in terms of official support and in the battle for talent.

Capacity is now the greatest challenge confronting our industry. Skills shortages in construction have been driving up labour costs for years, but now the spike in work, coupled with the tech sector’s proven ability to attract the brightest young minds, has raised the stakes dramatically.

With global demand for construction forecast to rise by 3.2% a year for the next decade, the skills gap is no longer a mere inflationary annoyance - it could severely limit the industry’s ability to deliver what is asked of it.

Meeting the recruitment challenge will require a seismic shift in strategy and buy-in from the industry, government and the education system. There are three broad areas we need to focus on:

Expanding the talent pool

The government has a key enabling role to play; by expanding the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths to create a pipeline of potential recruits. However, so too do schools and parents, teachers and educational establishments need to wake up to the benefits that degree apprenticeships can offer.

The industry must embrace the provision of highly-skilled apprenticeships like never before. The timing is propitious, as the Apprenticeship Levy, which goes live in April, will be a game-changer because of the funds it will unlock and the wider acceptance it will bring for apprenticeships. The question is, do the educational establishments have the required infrastructure in place to deal with a major swell in demand?

With increasing numbers of talented young people questioning the value of the conventional university route - in which acquiring a degree can saddle them with tens of thousands of pounds of debt - there is a strong case to be made for professional apprenticeships that allow them instead to graduate with several years of career experience and salary rather than debt.

Boosting diversity

Just 14% of people working in the UK construction industry are women. While better than some countries, Britain still lags far behind other nations. In Norway the figure is 35 percent.

An industry that holds little appeal for half of the population will always struggle to recruit adequately. However, some forward-thinking players are taking active steps to attract more female talent.

Tideway, the company delivering London’s £4.2bn ‘super sewer’ tunnel, has stated its aim to achieve a 50–50 balance between men and women in its workforce, using a range of measures including bringing skilled women back from career breaks to rejoin the industry.

Changing perceptions

The competition with the tech sector throws into relief just what an image problem construction has. Far too many potential recruits dismiss it because they assume it is dirty, dangerous and low-tech.

A recent survey by the Construction Industry Training Board found that more than a third of career advisers thought a career in construction was unattractive. Clearly, we must ramp up outreach efforts at schools and universities, and showcase the futuristic designs, robotics and technology that make ours such an exciting industry to work in.

The fragmented nature of the profession doesn’t help, so we need our industry bodies to speak with one voice and make more of the contribution that construction makes to society as a whole.

Fortunately, construction has a trump card when it comes to recruiting millennials – the obvious socio-economic benefits it delivers.

Construction should therefore boost its appeal by emphasising the wider value of what we do; construction directly contributes to and improves the lives of millions by providing and creating sustainable and diverse communities while making a net contribution to GDP.

This means building critical social infrastructure such as medical and educational facilities and regenerating the spaces we live and work in, ensuring we have power networks that keep the lights on, driving growth in urban areas through critical transport links and finally, enabling communications through new technology such as 5G.

The high-profile mega-projects the industry will be delivering are both a challenge and a publicity opportunity. We should use the platform they give us to show what an innovative, exciting and socially responsible industry ours is – and seize this opportunity to refresh our image and recruit the next generation of infrastructure talent.

Patricia Moore is managing director of UK Infrastructure at Turner & Townsend.