Travel may expose you to diverse cultures, but skills shortages, seem to be the same the world over. If only the same could be said for health and safety …
Travel broadens the mind. That may be a cliché, but it’s certainly true of my perspective on our industry. And it’s comforting to know that many of the problems we encounter every day in the UK are mirrored overseas – and are often more acute.
In the past four years my travels with Bovis Lend Lease have taken me across Europe, to the USA, Russia, the Middle East, Australia, India and, most recently, China. Visiting our projects in these countries has given me a fresh insight and a chance to listen to our local managers explaining the challenges they face.
Some things are common to everyone and I make no excuse for picking on the most obvious at the outset. Safety is an issue wherever I go. Not surprisingly the mature markets tend to be better at it because they’ve been doing it longer. However, that doesn’t mean they’re complacent. Far from it; they realise the need to be constantly on their guard against the lax behaviour that comes, often unwittingly, from over familiarity with the job. A casual approach can cost a limb or a life – all for the sake of saving a few seconds or stopping and thinking if there’s a safer way of doing things.
As big-name clients begin to look towards the less mature market for their growth, this casual approach is becoming even more of an issue. Clients with international reputations rightly expect the same standards of site safety in emerging markets as they do in their home countries. However, the challenge in these young overseas markets is not just making people comply with safety standards but making them take seriously the risks they face if they don’t work safely or wear the right kit. I know from personal experience the difficulties of getting people to wear personal protective equipment in some of the countries where Bovis Lend Lease operates. Too often, the safety boots we issue end up being sold in a local market a few days later. Evidence suggests that things are getting better as international contractors spread the safety gospel, but there will always be room for improvement.
Okay, end of safety lecture; I’ve spent half the column talking about it and there are other interesting comparisons to consider – skills and materials shortages, for instance. Having just got back from China, I can attest that there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of skills there, but materials are a real issue.
The sheer scale of the Chinese construction industry is breathtaking, and the volume of materials it is currently consuming threatens shortages and price rises in base commodities like steel. If the rest of the world’s construction industry is to prosper, it needs to take action now to safeguard supplies and protect its position.
There was a time when UK construction stockpiled key materials such as steel and cement, but rising prices and dwindling margins in the 1990s seemed to put an end to that prudence. With megaprojects such as the 2012 Olympics and, we hope, the government’s urban regeneration schemes looming, perhaps it’s time to revisit that idea of stockpiling, if only to offset the worst effects of being caught out by rapidly increasing prices.
There was a time when the UK construction industry used to stockpile key materials such as steel and cement, but rising prices put an end to that prudence. Given the demand from China, perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea
Material supplies might notice a telling contrast between China and most other countries, but skills shortages seem to be the same the world over. It’s quite apparent that other mature markets are suffering the same lack of skilled craft and tradesmen that we face in the UK. To a degree, our shortage is being offset by an influx of foreign workers, particularly from Eastern Europe, and that’s bound to grow with the prospects of an Olympic building boom.
But we mustn’t just rely on others to do that work. The prospect of a secure workload should provide the comfort factor that employers need to commit to apprenticeships and to help us develop the homegrown talent that we need to see this industry through in the long term. Without a workforce we won’t have a construction industry – it’s as simple as that.
Something that isn’t so simple and certainly isn’t going to go away is the whole issue of sustainability, global warming and the world construction industry’s impact on the environment in general. Fortunately this issue seems to be taken as seriously abroad as it is at home. Therefore, we often find ourselves working with like-minded clients and architects when it comes to the design and functionality of new buildings.
But we still need to find ways of producing our core products more efficiently, reducing the energy consumed in their manufacture and delivery. There’s nothing worse than seeing lines of lorries queued outside a site with their engines running as frustrated drivers wait to make their deliveries. It’s wasteful, it’s unnecessary and it’s damaging our industry’s reputation.
On the subject of reputation, wherever I’ve travelled it has been very apparent what an enormous contribution construction makes to the global economy – not just in terms of GDP, employment and advances in technology but in terms of the improvements it makes to people’s living standards through new infrastructure and amenities.
As an industry we appear to be universally modest about this contribution and it’s time we did more to remind governments, the media and the public that the changing urban landscape they so often take for granted is the result of many people’s creative endeavour.
John Spanswick is chairman of the Major Contractors Group. Email email@example.com