Insights You May Have Missed From UK Construction Week

I use the word ‘may’ in this title as hopefully you took the time to go along to this key trade event.  If you didn’t, you missed a really insightful, worthwhile three days. Still in its infancy, this show has revved up a couple of notches since last year.

Great innovation and breadth of building products were on display and the three days were crammed with perceptive seminars within our world. In condensing the information, I wanted to summarise some of the key discussions from the event that are at the heart of issues currently puzzling boardrooms.

On Wednesday I sat through a debate about attracting and retaining talent within the built environment. Surprisingly there were some differing views. Diane Thornhill, HR Director for engineering consultancy firm Arup, kicked things off by stating she does not feel we have lost the war on talent. Long suffering rail and energy continue to find things hard, but this is nothing new. The bigger issue in her world is training or attracting skills who can satisfy advances in technology. 

Graham Edgell, Director of Sustainability & Procurement at Morgan Sindall, disagreed stating that within the company’s workforce of 6500 the average plant operative is 56 years of age. He provided the example of their use of GPS technology which, although embraced by the organisation, is hard to implement as there aren't the workers to programme and operate the equipment.

Not for profit organisation, BRE largely agrees. Their HR Director, Pauline Traetto, stated that a staggering 27,000 projects were abandoned last year alone due to lack of available workforce. 

Founder of organisation Built by Her, Marta De Sousa, highlighted the stigma attached to women working within the industry. This has been a blocker for many a year and can be largely attributed to the industry’s resistance to offering flexible working. In fact, Marta pointed out women account for just 2% of the industry workforce. A recent survey found that only 6% of parents feel that a career in construction is an attractive option for their children.

Caroline Barker of Considerate Constructors Scheme summarised it well when she commented that the industry buys in skills rather than nurturing and growing from within. This point resonates with me. I am asked regularly to headhunt from competitors for niche skills. When I pose the question about developing skills to ensure investment and worker retention, manufacturers and service companies alike generally offer little robust explanation as to how they are tackling the issue.

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Driving home this point, Marion Marsland of the Thermal Insulation Contractors Association highlighted the complexities associated with SME’s developing dynamic succession planning strategies. The government needs to offer more help with less red tape. Small companies have to weave through a complex maze of setting themselves up to provide apprenticeships, with too much onus on them reviewing providers of schemes. Marion pointed out that although the CITB has not had issues in attracting applications (circa 50,000 last year), the bigger issue is in retaining skills once people are in. Additionally, qualifications need to be aligned and adhered to – GNVQs and apprenticeships are constantly being tweaked, with parents and companies holding little value in their validity. There needs to be a more joined-up and consistent approach to young people attaining qualifications that hold water in the long term.

Last year I heard a debate about attracting school leavers and it would appear that this subject has gathered more pace since then. Graham Edgell said that Morgan Sindall works hard within schools and, with the amount of onsite work they do, the company is always on display to youngsters.  However he felt that tuition remains stale and male orientated.

Diane Thornhill commented, however, that more is now being done at primary school level through the art of imagination. Being a parent myself, this point hit home the importance of making learning for a future occupation fun. Diane also highlighted that more needs to be done to provide graduates with the vision to be useful to firms, rather than purely teaching the required technical skills. 

The final point on this subject is diversity. The speakers were in agreement about this, with Graham Edgell noting that when faced with questions of workforce diversity, the industry is able to manoeuvre a way around tender documents. More needs to be done to stop firms skirting around or manipulating data to suit terms for engagement.

A lot is said about the need to constantly innovate within building products, so I headed off for a compelling talk on the subject with speakers from TRADA (timber association), the director of the Materials Council, the principal investigator for Cardiff University’s Materials4life project and the Head of Structures for Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Much was discussed regarding the latest advancements in available materials, for example increased usage of self-healing cementitious products and cross laminated timber for a stronger yet thinner product. However it was the chinks to further innovation that really made me listen. Rupert Scott of TRADA has, for some time, asked the government to intervene in a fairer method to fund projects in the area. In this country, he argues, we are too “free market focussed”.  There isn’t a coherent industry standard strategy to drive development. For example, concrete manufacturers do not have a hub from which to drive discussion and develop ideas. Instead individual manufacturers cobble together new ideas within their own little space and hold onto them rather than letting them breathe amongst other industry leaders. 

When competing for government funding our industry needs more help. Ian Hunter, Director at Materials Council, posed the question about why the government feels compelled to prioritise handouts to sexier, niche industries such as Formula One and Biotech, rather than the more here-and-now sectors like Building Products.  

The forum agreed that fluctuations in prices do not help the situation. Question marks over markets do not lead manufacturers to prioritise research. Equally, with the supply chain under pressure to preserve margins, latest advancements in materials are often ignored for cheaper alternatives (especially when projects are further value engineered as they mature). 

Professor Robert Lark of Cardiff University finished off by saying that we need to become more connected with our world class universities. Although it is dangerous to compare, he highlighted how the Germans are very effective at working with their universities as collective product hubs in driving innovation. The UK works with research as individual manufacturers, further compounding the issue of blinkered advancement.

All in all, some fascinating stuff came out of the show. I look forward to tracking some of these key speakers to see if and how they can drive some of the changes needed and called for by them.

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