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Why, as Carillion collapses, we must look back to the future

Simon Halewood, PR Account Director at Beattie Communications, says the disastrous collapse of Carillion must not be allowed to derail the vital modernisation of the construction industry.

Why, as Carillion collapses, we must look back to the future

At this point it remains impossible to calculate the damage and the fall-out from the liquidation of the UK’s second-biggest contractor Carillion – at around £1.5Bn in debt – with all of its 20,000 UK jobs at serious risk and suppliers and subcontractors owed a reported £2Bn.

While there can be no downplaying the surprise that a business, so intrinsic to so many UK-critical public infrastructure and private sector projects, could allow itself (or be allowed) to fall so embarrassingly, the construction industry itself simply cannot afford to let its hard-fought post-recession recovery falter now.

This is an industry brought to its knees by the 2008 financial crisis, yet one which managed to survive and adapt by becoming leaner and smarter. Enormous barriers to change remain but pioneering companies – those with forward thinking and careful managers – daring to champion innovations such as the use of offsite manufacturing and the collaborative use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), have made huge strides to drag the industry kicking and screaming up to date in order to survive.

It is not to say that Carillion, or its sub-contractors, did not embrace innovative approaches to its projects – its thousands of talented and ambitious workers must be supported back into work urgently – but to say that in light of Carillion’s collapse, others cannot down tools in the push to modernise or this disaster will not end with Carillion.

As stories of Carillion’s faults continue to emerge – a Government inquiry into the disaster has been fast tracked by the Government, which, itself faces questions over its own decisions to continue to award contracts to the firm – they will surely do nothing but underline its industry’s perhaps archaic wider reputation.

It is an industry which has long reported difficulty attracting new talent perhaps down to its ‘macho culture’ reputation. The ‘skills gap’ remains a serious issue and sits side by side with the industry’s comparatively slow progress in developing a diverse and inclusive workforce. Stories like Carillion’s do not help.

There are still occasions when projects, of all shapes and sizes, will face delays and run over budget, but given the ever tighter budgets and operating profits, the industry has had to commit to change. It really does remain a case of adapt or die for the sector, and the only way to survive is to innovate to be the most efficient.

The industry now drastically needs to alter its approach to communications. In some corners, PR across the industry had long served no purpose except ‘to spin’, with releases notably full of back-slapping that you could cringe at a mile away. Crucially it’s an industry scared to shout about innovation for fear of being copied or having star performers pinched.

The advent of BIM and the ongoing adoption of collaborative efficient working practices between architects, designers, constructors, engineers, facilities managers and end-user clients, demonstrate that progress is being made.

The industry is changing and the parts that aren’t, be it at the top or bottom, are disappearing – not that that is of any consolation to those employed and giving their very best within failing companies. Finding these people jobs within the industry is of paramount importance.

Carillion’s public sector contracts will be re-tendered and the industry will face increasing scrutiny – and that is for the better because many are up to the challenge. It is time to shout about the companies and those projects making an enormous difference to lives across the UK and those setting new standards across the world.

There are plenty of these success stories. Those companies working to transform and innovate could detoxify the UK construction industry. It is no longer an industry entirely adverse to change, but you might not know that.

Carillion’s failure is proof that the industry has no choice but to change and evolve, even having survived the recession. Championing evolution, efficiency and innovation is the only way to restore the industry’s standing, reputation and talent pool.

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