Huge challenges require a new approach
‘Behaviours’ is the new business buzzword on the block. It was everywhere at the recent conference held by construction industry risk mitigation experts, says Ray Bone, President of the Association for Project Safety.
Speaker after speaker said the same thing: that the construction sector was facing huge challenges requiring a new approach. And this wasn’t just when people talked about the Building Safety Act, or the qualifications and experience needed by skilled professionals working across all disciplines in the built environment. It was about how the industry behaves and the attitudes it displays.
I know, for some, this represents just so much more wokery when, arguably, we have bigger and scarier things – like the cost-of-living crisis and soaring energy costs – to worry about.
To those of you thinking that – those people fighting for the next contract or running down poor payers – let me tell you, I understand how you feel. In the day job I provide CDM consultancy services, so I know about keeping clients on side and needing to find new work too.
When I tell you ‘Behaviours’ get to the heart of improving business I am not shouting from the top of some ivory-tower. I’m not even straying into the realms of politics with all its current emphasis on increasing national productivity. I think ‘behaviours’ matter because I see how the way we treat one another can help the industry.
I believe, and I’m saying this as the new president of the APS, that the construction sector has to up its game – not just our skills but also how we go about things. And that is simply because we need to attract and retain skilled people if we are going to build anything at all.
I know this sounds dramatic, but the construction sector is facing a manpower timebomb – and we have only just lit the fuse. There are skills’ gaps everywhere – shortages of brickies, plumbers, and other trades. Plasterers command a King’s ransom. There’s an inability to attract professionals as they opt for jobs elsewhere. People are just jacking it all in.
And, on top of that, across the board, we are failing to make construction a career of choice. I also lecture at Hull University, so I see this first hand. Construction is not a sector that is seen as welcoming; not welcoming to women, therefore writing off a large chunk of the working population. That also makes it difficult for people from any minority ethnic background, closing the door to managerial jobs and promotion. That is positively hostile to anyone who in any way ‘different’, shutting our ears to talents and experiences that would make our built environment a better place for everyone.
It is my mission to change this. And, for that, the sector has to challenge its perceptions and attitudes.
So, what do we mean when we talk about ‘behaviours’?
On the face of it, it’s just what it says on the tin. In an old-fashioned sense it’s about how ‘manners maketh the man’, or ‘person’ as I suppose we’d say now. But, in the context of improving work across the built environment, it’s all about how we go about the things we do.
Now, before anyone mentions it, I know the Building Safety Act relates to England only. But it is equally clear the new government intends to see the provisions of the Act extend well beyond the high-risk buildings on the face of the legislation. And there will be inevitable knock-on effects in the devolved administrations as each seeks to improve construction in their own areas. So, let’s not beat about the bush: no matter where you live – or where you work – how you act is going to matter to everyone.
For the group that still thinks this is all so much middle-class angst, let me disabuse you of that idea. I’m just a bloke. I’m no primped and pressed desk pilot. I’ve been a firefighter and a bouncer. I am a martial arts’ expert. I think I’m a beauty – but take a look, that may just be on the inside. So, if I can challenge my habits, I am bloody sure you can too.
We need to start close to home.
Let’s take bullying. The industry has been writing it off as banter for years, saying those on the receiving end should just toughen up. But they’re not to blame. At best it grinds people down and turns them away.
Let’s look at the tight little circles we create, awarding jobs to our mates. It perpetuates all the old ways and doesn’t let in fresh air and new ideas. And the practice protects people who ought to have been put out to pasture years ago.
Let’s consider site conditions. This isn’t the dark ages, and every site should have proper washing and changing facilities.
Let’s embrace new technology.
Let’s talk about mental health. Because there is a growing body of evidence that people are taking their own lives because of conditions at work.
Think I’m wrong? Then answer yourself one question: if your daughter said she was considering a career in construction, what would you think? What would you advise her? If, like my predecessor Jonathan, your super bright child was interested, would you talk them down because they are a wheel-chair user and need a communicator to have a voice?
If you can honestly answer you think everyone would find their home in the industry, you are either on the side of the angels or you are wearing blinkers.
The sector is ageing. Look around at the faces on Zoom and Teams. Tot up the total years’ experience in your office. People rightly want more from life than a wage and a clip round the ear. But we all need a kick up the pants. Skills are the name of the game, and the future will depend on how we teach and value them.
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