We need a long-term and steady pipeline of work to guard against wild variations in industry sentiment

William Burton

Towards the end of 2013, a CITB research report found that confidence among construction employers about the future of the industry was on the up. Six out of 10 were decidedly positive about prospects and only 16% remained unconvinced. KPMG’s Global Construction Survey from last year reported an even higher degree of confidence with almost three quarters of companies (73%) “positive” or “very positive” when asked to describe their medium-term outlook.  

Though the ONS stats showed a dip in construction activity in the last quarter, attributed predominantly to seasonal variations, January’s output projections and reports prove that the confidence was undoubtedly well-founded.

The main source of confidence seems to come from signed contracts, but is this the only real traction in the confidence stakes?

Our own Construction Skills Network (CSN) forecasts of 182,000 jobs needed over the next five years made welcome news after years of bleak projections and the NHBC’s recently released figures report the highest number of new homes built since electronic records began. The corner has been well and truly turned. But (isn’t there always a but.?) around that corner, amid the relief and positivity lurks skills shortages, product shortages and a subsequent inability for many SMEs to meet the demand that the markets have been starved of for so long.

When it comes to market confidence, is it a case of chicken and egg? Which comes first, the orders or the confidence? And while it’s understandable that many employers are disinclined to, or are unable to plan based on speculation, can they afford not to? While a surge of confidence clearly helps drive the market and impacts activity relatively quickly, the absence of confidence prior to this point is damaging the industry when it most needs to capitalise on opportunities.

After years of a depressed industry, it might be hard to remember time when there was possibly too much confidence about, too much taken for granted. Like other sectors, construction’s confidence soared in the good times. For construction, as for many other sectors, getting the balance right, is the ultimate goal.

The main source of confidence seems to come from signed contracts, but is this the only real traction in the confidence stakes? If so, how do we change this to reduce our vulnerability?

CITB has been calling for longer term investment and programmes; new funding models and forms of partnership to help the industry plan and operate more effectively and collaboratively. While major projects are fantastic in the short term, providing in many instances a much welcome boost to local economies, the industry cannot afford to become reliant on one-offs. We need to work closely with government to help create a steady stream of construction activity that stretches far into the future. Sustainability is the key to future confidence. The industry needs to remain flexible and mobile but the focus must be on the long game.      

The volume of work in construction will continue to fluctuate as it has done in the past but if we can better control the heights of the peaks and nadir of the troughs, we will be a stronger, higher skilled and more stable sector. We need to be quietly confident.

William Burton is interim chief executive of the CITB