Changing the image of construction

Over the past decade, the construction industry has made significant progress to improve its image – but there’s a long way to go. It’s understandable that an often negative perception of the industry exists, given that the built environment is always changing around us. Building work can be costly, inconvenient and disruptive by its very nature. However, this doesn’t mean that considered steps can’t be taken to minimise the negative impact of a building site and maximise the positive. Joe Bradbury investigates.

The public opinion

One such area of our overall image that needs an overhaul is public opinion. Unfortunately there are many widely held preconceptions of construction workers by the general public, usually formed after witnessing or hearing about a particularly poor example of how a construction firm is conducting their business.

Recent polls and surveys suggest that, according to the general public, the worst habits of construction workers in the UK are as follows:

  1. Revealing ‘builders bums’
  2. Ogling or chatting up passers-by
  3. Dangerous driving habits
  4. Swearing
  5. Playing loud music from vehicles/construction sites

Despite these stereotypes often being completely unfounded, it is still undoubtedly part of how the outside world perceives the construction industry when looking in. Once a negative opinion is formed of a building site, it is very difficult to fix.

…The good news it is much easier to take steps that will prevent the negative opinion from ever forming in the first place.

Attracting new talent

Both the industry and our government need to cooperate and inspire young people to join the construction sector. This can be done through offering apprenticeships, work experience, training academies, factory tours, employer talks and presentations, careers fairs, mentoring and partnerships with local schools.

Attracting new talent isn’t optional; we are currently in the grip of an ever-widening skills gap and we have an ageing workforce. The need for new workers that are capable and innovative cannot be overstated and will determine the success or failure of our industry over the next few decades. As the wider economy emerges from recession, construction firms must be able to recruit, retain and develop skilled, hard-working people in sufficient numbers to meet the increasing demand for construction.

Be considerate!

The Considerate Constructors Scheme is a non-profit making, independent organisation that is working collectively with contractors and specifiers to improve the image of construction.

Formed in 1997, the Scheme is concerned about any area of construction activity that may have a direct or indirect impact on the image of the industry as a whole. The main areas of concern fall into three categories: the general public, the workforce and the environment.

They too are of the opinion that the construction industry has a huge impact on all our lives, with most construction work taking place in sensitive locations. If all construction sites and companies presented an image of competent management, efficiency, awareness of environmental issues and above all neighbourliness, then they would become a positive advertisement, not just for themselves but for the industry as a whole.

Construction sites, companies and suppliers voluntarily register with the Scheme and agree to abide by the Code of Considerate Practice, designed to encourage best practice beyond statutory requirements. For more information on the Code, please visit www.ccscheme.org.uk.

Mike Petter is Chairman of the Considerate Constructors Scheme’s standing Service and Performance Committee, the organisation established by the construction industry to improve its image. Mike is a Chartered Civil Engineer, who has over 30 years working in the construction industry, and has monitored over 1000 construction sites registered with the Scheme.

We speak to Mike about the three key areas that need our attention:

Q) After years of denial, the general consensus within the industry seems to be that we need to reinvigorate the image of the construction sector. This is quite a sweeping statement, but how has this need for change come about and how can the Considerate Constructors Scheme help in achieving this goal?

The challenge for the industry over the next ten years and beyond is developing the capacity to respond to the needs of society. It is recognised that the UK population will grow rapidly over the next ten years, possibly by 10 million. Such an expanding population necessitates an increase and improvement in housing and infrastructure. In order to deliver these demands, the industry needs to attract significantly more people at all skill levels – from the front line skilled trades – through to engineers and architects.

In many respects, the construction industry has been the ‘poor relation’ for years – even though there is a wide range of career opportunities open to everyone. A recent poll revealed that 35% of careers advisors would not recommend the industry to a young person contemplating their future. The industry needs to counter this misconception by improving its reputation and showing that it can be an exciting and rewarding place to work.

As we all know, image is far deeper than appearance. The Considerate Constructors Scheme has developed its Checklist covering the wide range of attributes that go to make up ‘image’. These include the outward impression portrayed, the care of the environment, consideration of the neighbourhood and the care of the workforce. The Scheme monitors over 15,000 sites across the UK every year. Scheme Monitors have many years of experience working within construction and visit registered sites to assess their performance against the Code of Considerate Practice. Monitors also provide advice and guidance and share best practice from across the industry. The site’s performance is rated and can be benchmarked against other registered sites. This tool is vital to a culture of continuous improvement. In 2015, over 15,000 monitoring visits took place.

The unique aspect of the way the Considerate Constructors Scheme works provides the backbone to a wide-ranging suite of tools designed to help the industry improve. In 2015, the Scheme introduced the Best Practice Hub – an online resource which enables the construction industry to share their best practice in terms of considerate construction. It can be used by anyone in the industry including site managers, contractors, suppliers and clients, who are looking to meet and exceed the requirements of the Code, achieve a higher score and ultimately improve the overall image of the construction industry.

Q) With a skills gap widening and threatening future business growth, industry and government must work together now to inspire young people. Construction firms must be able to recruit, retain and develop skilled, hard-working people in sufficient numbers to meet the increasing demand for construction. What do you think needs to change industry-wide to tackle the skills gap head on?

The traditional model of construction where unique projects are contracted on a ‘one-off’ basis has meant that major companies have perhaps been reluctant to invest heavily into training the workforce. This is compounded by the model which sees the majority of major companies no longer employing a direct labour force but relying on a supply chain to deliver these skills. To expect a business to invest in the future, it is imperative that they can see some stability moving forward. The advent of longer term major infrastructure projects, such as Crossrail, has provided that stability. As a result, we are seeing companies take on apprentices in the knowledge that they will see a return on their investment.

Major contractors have a key role to play in supporting their supply chain. The Scheme is seeing large-scale housebuilders taking on apprentices and placing them within their supply chain businesses, which are often SMEs. This wider vision is to be applauded and mainstream construction could learn some valuable lessons from this model.

Similarly, repeat business clients can play a major role in ensuring that there is a model which provides a continuity of training opportunities – even if there is a change in the primary contractor. During a skills crisis, it needs all players within the industry to take responsibility and not just require the SME sector to take the strain whilst working in a paradigm of ‘lowest price’ ‘single project’ procurement. Of course, there are some excellent examples of best practice where alternative models are being used. A large number of contractors and clients have established academies for training the next generation’s workforce – many of which are showcased on the Best Practice Hub.

However, plugging the skills gap cannot be achieved in the timescales required merely by feeding greater numbers in at the lower age range. The industry needs to be attractive to those looking for a career change and should genuinely encourage women to join. Construction is lagging behind many sectors in this respect, including the armed forces, which could easily be described as comparable environment in many ways – yet the services are attracting an increasing proportion of women applicants.

Making the world a better place

The Scheme is concerned about any area of construction activity that may have a direct or indirect impact on the image of the industry as a whole. One such area that commands your attention is that of the environment. The creation of buildings and subsequent infrastructure alters the environment in two ways – by consuming valuable resources and by contributing to pollution and landfills. A recent report by Willmott Dixon Group suggested that the construction industry alone is accountable for around 45-50% of global energy usage, nearly 50% of worldwide water usage, and around 60% of the total usage of raw materials.

Q) The industry also contributes to 23% of air pollution, 50% of climate change gases, 40% of drinking water pollution, and another 50% of landfill wastes. Given these startling figures, how important is it that building firms concentrate more on waste reduction, recycling more and striving to construct sustainable buildings? And how will this improve public perception overall?

The Considerate Constructors Scheme only influences UK construction, so it’s worth noting that these figures are global, and are likely to be different when looking at the UK only. The Scheme monitors the impact of the construction process on the environment. It is important to differentiate this from the impact of the product on the environment – where design and commissioning decisions often have a larger impact than decisions made during the process stage. However, it is vital that the industry improves its practices to minimise the impact on the environment, and this will continue to remain a core tenet of the Scheme’s Checklist.

One of the greatest untold success stories of Scheme registered sites is the avoidance of waste from landfill. Sites are now performing at a level where around 90% or more of material leaving the project is recycled or re-used. This is huge progress, but there is still a large proportion of the industry that does not register with the Scheme – often because there is no client or statutory requirement to do so. If the industry can move to a position where more of those smaller, often domestic projects are registered with the Scheme, then the Monitors will be able to provide guidance and share best practice so that even more improvements can be achieved. A number of Clients Partners who register with the Scheme make registration a condition of contract, and the Scheme would like to see this adopted by more clients, as well as by local authorities ensuring that registration with the Scheme is a planning requirement.

There are numerous examples of measures taken to protect the environment on the Scheme’s Best Practice Hub. Please comment below!

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