The reason I mention this is that some of you who have read my previous columns may have drawn the conclusion that I'm a soapbox spokesman for subcontractors' rights: as it happens, that's only half true. What I'm interested in is a more positive and proactive relationship between main contractors and subcontractors – one based on mutual respect rather than mutual distrust – and that is as much about the subbie as it is about the big bad main contractor.
You see, the lesson I learned from my time in Germany was that you can't expect the benefit without making the investment. It's not easy to come by those qualifications (I spent many a sleepless night going over reams of technical information in German) and that, of course, is exactly what makes them worthwhile. Specialist subcontractors in countries like Germany and the Netherlands are viewed as skilled, qualified experts – and command the respect and fee to match. In return, they deliver a guaranteed quality of work and value engineering from the earliest stages of the contract. In other words, they are a valued and valuable partner.
In the UK, we still have a long way to go before this kind of partnership becomes the norm, but at least the seeds are in place. There is a greater emphasis on accountability and qualification in the industry – and a growing willingness on the part of decision-makers to award contracts on the basis of who will do the best job, not just who will do it cheapest.
All your caterers pitched against the same brief of coronation chicken and salmon fishcakes. Did they all taste the same?
So far, so good, you might think. Subcontractors are becoming more skills-focused and main contractors are becoming more aware of the benefits this can bring. The problem is that we work in an industry still steeped in confrontation – where some subcontractors can't see the point of investing in improved systems or training, because some main contractors still refuse to look further than the price tag when they award a job. It's a vicious circle, and we need to break it.
I was chatting to an industry acquaintance the other day who, as well as being responsible for appointing subcontractors to large roofing contracts, is also father of a bride-to-be. He was helping his daughter find a caterer for her wedding reception and, although keen to avoid bankrupting himself, he also wanted to make sure that nothing happened to spoil his little princess' day. In other words (and I'm sure you can guess where I'm heading), he didn't just go for the cheapest quote. He got menu suggestions, took up references from other customers and even had them prepare samples of the selected menu.
"So why is it," I asked him, "that when you're appointing subcontractors for building projects, the only thing you look at is the price?"
"That's different," he said. "You're all pitching against specified performance criteria."
"But all your caterers pitched against the same brief of coronation chicken and salmon fishcakes," I pointed out. "Did they all taste the same? Were they served on the same crockery? Did the waiting staff all deliver them without spilling sauce in your lap?"
I'm sure you have seen the point (as, eventually, my acquaintance did), so forgive me for labouring it: the traditional relationship of confrontation between contractor and subcontractor is simply bad business. It doesn't get you a better job; it just gets you a cheaper price – which, let's face it, is often likely to involve cutting corners.
Luke Wessely is managing director of Allan Roofing.