An ever-dwindling workforce means the built environment is in dire need of fresh blood. So what improvements are this year’s top 50 employers making to retain staff and entice new recruits?

GEG 2016

Construction is fishing for labour from an ever-shrinking pool. That was the message of the Farmer review of the UK construction labour model, which was published last month. To boost this dwindling labour force, the industry as a whole should probably take a look at what’s on offer at Building’s top 50 good employers.

The latest annual list is a diverse one, ranging in size from 13-strong project manager 3PM to the UK arm of multinational construction giant Skanska.

Staff turnover is 12.4% of workforce across the top 50 firms, which is slightly up on last year’s figure of 11.2%. This result must, however, be viewed against the backdrop of improving labour market conditions in the industry over much of the period covered by the survey. Two of the minnows on the list, 3PM and Built Environment Design Partnership, saw no exits.

The survey, which is designed to identify best practice in employment practices across the industry, shows a continued improvement in employment packages.
One of the biggest shifts is the proportion of firms that offer enhanced maternity benefits, up by nearly a third (see details overleaf).

All but six of the top 50 good employers say they offer flexible working to all of their staff. Just over half of the companies on the list offer sabbaticals to all staff: 18 of the remainder offer it to some staff and just four do not make the option available.

The opportunity to work abroad remains less commonly offered, understandably given the small to medium-sized nature of many of the businesses in the top 50. Twenty-one firms do not offer the option, while 18 offer it to some staff and 11 make it available to all staff.

Antipodean architects would be well advised to check out Assael Architecture, which awards sabbaticals to staff for every 10 years of service. At each such landmark, the practice also dishes out an extra 20 paid holiday days for that year and £3,000 for two “round-the-world” tickets or equivalent. This largesse is provided on top of the £350 bonus every member of staff gets to go away for a long weekend with colleagues to a city of their choice.

The company has also introduced a new five-year service reward. During their fifth year at Assael, staff receive an extra five days of holiday plus £500 to spend towards travel and a two-day top-up to their annual holiday allowance from then on.

The practice also encourages members of staff to take extended holidays for one-off special occasions or trips abroad to see family.

Architecture practice JTP, meanwhile, has introduced an additional five days’ paid holiday to employees when they pass the 10-year mark with the company. These extra days are in addition to an already generous standard 31 days’ leave entitlement offered by the company, which helped to secure it a top five slot this year.

Consultant Pick Everard, which marked its own 150th anniversary last year, has a different way of recognising long service. Each member of staff is recognised at the Leicester-based firm’s annual awards ceremony when they clock up 15, 20 and 25 years’ service.

Holiday terms appear to have become more generous over the past year. Three firms - surveyor Hardies, consultant DBK Partners
and Assael - all offer a maximum of 40 days’ holiday per year.

Architects and consultants vie to offer the most generous holiday entitlements. The top 50 firms in each category offer an average of 30.6 days and 30.5 days maximum leave per year respectively. However, all sectors offer more leave than the statutory minimum of four weeks’ leave. Engineers and contractors allocate 28.9 days and 26.7 days respectively.

Some top 50 companies also offer top-up days to relieve the pressures of maintaining a work-life balance. Mace offers two additional “Mace Days” per year, which can be taken at short notice for occasions such as children’s sports days or just to take a delivery at home.

Tackling the long hours culture is clearly on the mind of several top 50 firms. Top five good employer Alinea, for example, allows staff to turn overtime worked into paid holiday. JTP’s own efforts to tackle the issue have cut the overtime worked by staff from 12% of total hours in 2013 to 9% in 2015.

And at least in the architectural field, the overseas staff trip is not a thing of the past. JTP is one of the practices that gives back to its staff by organising an annual office overseas study trip. Eighty staff enjoyed three days of learning and fun in Stockholm earlier this year, which followed a trip to Amsterdam in 2014.

Another big target within the sector over the past year has been training, which was a key focus of this October’s Farmer review.

Of the firms that made it into the top 50 good employers, engineers are clearly the most committed to training, offering an average of 117.5 hours per year. Architects, consultants and contractors offer an average 39.7, 51.3 and 31.7 hours respectively over a year.

Assael offers every member of staff a £650 pot, which they can use to fund training of their choice. Skanska, meanwhile, has inaugurated its own Programme Management of the Future training course with Cranfield University.
The company pension remains, of course, a key plank of most firms’ benefits packages. One of the stand-out retirement packages in the top 50 is offered by Croudace. For those members of staff who are prepared to put 5% of their earnings into the company’s group personal pension scheme, the contractor provides up to 10% of total salary.

However, for many of the younger staff on the industry’s books, saving up for retirement is a far less pressing matter than getting a foot on the property ladder.

Firms working in the built environment will be acutely conscious professionally as well as personally about the housing pressures that face their staff.

One of the more unusual benefits is the pioneering Housing Support Loan offered by JTP.

JTP has responded to the challenges faced by its younger staff by setting up the loan scheme, which will be offered on an interest-free basis to help its employees secure homes to either buy or rent.

So far, JTP says take-up had been “significant”, and 10% of the practice’s staff have been helped on to the property ladder through the initiative.

It is the kind of imaginative response that more companies may have to consider in a post-Brexit environment where labour could become increasingly scarce.