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FPS chairman's blog: It’s a dirty job, and somebody’s got to do it. But who?

I read with interest recently a couple of articles about the challenges facing the construction sector as it bounces back to sustained growth. Bumper orders books sound great, these articles proclaim, but at the same time they warn about material and plant shortages.

Even one of our own Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) members wrote of the need for Tier 1 contractors to pay more attention to scheduling lead times.

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of these articles but, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that while these are short and medium term issues which need addressing, there is a much bigger and longer term problem building for the construction sector and that is the growing skills and labour shortage. It seems ironic that we have an influx of migrant labour, record youth unemployment and a growing economy, yet construction seems to be the last place anyone wants to work. In the short term this is no big deal, but when you consider that construction sector employees are an ageing population and link this to industry growth projections, then attracting new blood is not only important, it is essential to ensure the economy continues to grow.

So what’s going wrong – why is it that construction seems to be the last place the young want to work these days? If you throw gender into the equation, there can be very few industries that are more unattractive to women. Industry experts often cite working conditions, pay and more attractive alternative forms of employment among the main reasons, but I think it is deeper than this. I believe there is a long-standing, deep rooted perception problem with the construction industry and that it is locked into a system from education to government that all too often reinforces many of these perceptions. I don’t mean the unsexy view that it is all hard hats, safety  boots and a day-glo vests. I mean the intrinsic and wrongly held belief that construction is dirty, sexist, or at least a boy’s club, cold, unwelcoming and frankly not a career for anyone with a brain. Yes, we marvel at the beauty of the architectural masterpieces when complete, but little thought goes into how it was constructed, who built it, the technologies behind it and the people and resources that put it there. We also focus on pretty buildings – the new rail station, airport terminal or sexy office block forgetting the miles of transport infrastructure that connects it all, the maintenance, utilities and renovation that keeps it up and running and the many areas of the construction sector that put it there.

So how do we change this perception issue? How do we get the young – men and women – engaged in a sector that despite the “perception” is actually one of the most vibrant, exciting, diverse and is full of opportunities at all levels? It must start with schools and education, as that is before any of the external influencers have had chance to shape the minds of the young. Most kids love machinery and seem to have no aversion to getting dirty too, so we must capture this enthusiasm before it gets lost to the more dominant career paths that sell an often more compelling story. It’s not about brainwashing, just simply putting construction and all its many facets, on an even level with all the other more fashionable careers. More must be done to ensure the importance, the diversity and opportunities in construction – for girls and boys – is made through education and that a clear link between construction and pretty much everything built around them is made apparent. Young people can then make a clear and informed choice between the various career options, which now include construction, which I think for most presently doesn’t even make it onto the list.

Of course the media and government have roles to play too and they too must do more to help put construction on the employment agenda for young people.

I don’t doubt government’s appreciation of the construction sectors importance, having past stated that it will be the construction sector that will build us out of recession. Well that has happened, so now it is time to throw some support behind the sector and promote its benefits alongside the silicon economy and the ever-present financial and creative and arts sectors.

We as construction companies should do more too. We are not good at shouting about our successes, promoting ourselves or even making ourselves more attractive to women. The FPS does much to promote its own sector of the industry. It supports and encourages its members through open days and other educational programmes, but so much more can be done by individual companies to change perceptions. It is easy to shout about exciting projects, to provide information to local schools about construction through newsletters and to organise, where practical, site visits in partnership with other main and sub-contractors to show off what is being built. It may cost a little in time and money but really it is investing in your future and in the future of construction.

Start today, take a good look at your business and see if it is really talking to the next generation of construction workers. Does your business appeal to women? Does it look old, tired and sexist? I would hope not, but just in case – maybe it’s time to change.

  • Martin Blower is chairman of The Federaton of Piling Specialists

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