The industry currently known as construction needs to do more than incremental tinkering with technology or scoping out skills. Big, joined-up thinking is required.
Watching recent developments regarding UK construction skills shortages and “the image of construction“, I fear the sector’s typically conservative and incremental approaches will do little to bring about much-needed major change.
According to HM Treasury’s National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, 250,000 of the existing workforce will have to re-train in new skills and a further 100,000 new recruits must be found (read TCI story). Yet industry initiatives tend to focus on delivering more of today’s constructors, not tomorrow’s built environment collaborators.
Take the recent launch by the CITB of its Go Construct campaign, for example…. The CITB says:
Responding to feedback from employers, CITB is supporting the campaign with £5million of levy funding over three years. CITB has brought all of the industry to speak with one voice. More than 400 organisations including employers, careers advisors, teachers, lecturers and construction ambassadors have been involved in the design of the campaign that has been tested with 700 real users.
The campaign aims to challenge some of the outdated stereotypes about what working in construction is really like, and demonstrate the hundreds of career options and entry routes available. It is launching against growing skill needs and opportunities in construction.
Construction businesses need more than constructors
Go Construct’s online portal includes “a careers explorer that matches users’ interests and skills to a wide range of roles”. I tried out the portal from the perspective of someone (for example, my 17-year-old daughter – currently considering her university options) wanting a career in construction law, in finance, in product design or manufacture, in marketing or PR, or in IT, HR or other areas of administrative support, and was repeatedly told: “We’re sorry, based on your selection we have been unable to find a suitable match.”
Scrolling through the 144 job titles currently listed on the portal (perhaps one day there will be “hundreds”), there were almost no roles in any of these key support areas; the vast majority were conventional construction trade, technician and professional roles (plus a couple of lecturer roles, and “Partner or managing director”). Go Construct, it appears, is focused on training people to work almost purely in project delivery, ignoring the opportunities that the industry can offer to a wide range, and huge number, of other workers in support roles and in supplier organisations without which most construction businesses and projects would grind to a halt.
[Update (20 October 2015) – The CITB has come under fire for the £1.2m cost of its Go Construct website – see Construction Enquirer.]
The CITB may think it has “brought all of the industry to speak with one voice”, but I seriously doubt it (just a month ago, I noted Build UK claims that it was “ideally positioned to promote collaboration and provide industry-wide solutions for the benefit of everyone”). The sector is hugely diverse and fragmented, and the CITB is seemingly just marketing its traditional strengths and trying to pick off some low-hanging fruit.
As I’ve said before, the current immense challenges facing the sector – chief construction adviser Peter Hansford today listed them as skills, productivity, innovation, collaboration and image – will not be solved by pretending we work in a monolithic entity and tinkering in a few areas to achieve incremental change. We have to identify deep-rooted changes we could make across many disciplines, and then get them communicating, running long-term, integrated, pan-sector campaigns, and working collaboratively with partners, trade bodies and customers and end-users.
“Make no little plans”
We have to tackle the existing siloed structures, attitudes, cultures and resulting behaviours within the sector. These helped create the industry’s poor reputation (arguably, if we could tackle the skills, productivity, innovation and collaboration challenges, the image issue would be resolved too), and this reputation makes construction less attractive to potential home-grown employees at a time when there are deep skills shortages and the existing workforce is ageing.
The future direction and shape of the industry currently known as construction (TICKAC?) will be affected by political, economic, social, legal and environmental factors. Globalisation, carbon, population growth and resource shortages will have an increasingly important and direct bearing on what industry clients identify as desirable business outcomes, making them more alert to whole-life performance and to wider business, social, economic and sustainability outcomes (yesterday, I attended a Living Future conference organised by Arup Associates – review Storify here – where biology, psychology and sociology were mentioned just as much as architecture and engineering, and where ILFI CEO Jason McLennan urged us all to think big).
Supply chain organisations in TICKAC will be rationalised and more integrated, transformed into providers of leaner, safer, lower-carbon and data-supported “asset services”, rewarded across the life-cycle for the economic and social value delivered by the built assets they create, and having the reputations and market valuations more commonly found among sophisticated manufacturers.
And workers will be rewarded for their value-adding contributions; many will be recruited and trained to apply their skills in off-site manufacturing facilities; there will be a more strategic and long-term view of employment supply and demand (managed through pan-sector open platforms such as Ethos’s SkillsPlanner project – soft-launched yesterday, and to which CITB is contributing data; see Construction Manager story),* and new professions will emerge as we start to “build for living” (see Arup/RAEng report) and exploit the rich data opportunities of Future Cities.
This is not achieved solely by tinkering with technology or scoping out new silo-based skills. It is achieved by thinking big, by radically overhauling existing structures, processes and cultures, driving out waste, creating just and collaborative business relationships (both corporate and interpersonal) that nurture innovation, and having supply chains focus on what delivers best whole life economic and social value.
[* This post draws on a blog post I wrote for Ethos – of which I am a partner – in July. I am part of the SkillsPlanner team.]