As I was delivering my presentation, I suddenly realised there was something very different about this audience. Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to address more construction audiences up and down the country than I care to count. I have talked on all the buzzwords and issues facing the industry, topics like lean construction, IT, benchmarking, partnering and so on. But this was the first time I was talking specifically about Respect for People in the industry, and this audience was distinctly different from any other I had encountered.
This audience was predominately female. I would not have flinched if it had been 95% male – that's normal – but this one was easily three-quarters female. Why, I asked myself? Was it because this subject matter is regarded as something soft and woolly for the girls to do, not something for the butch men in the industry to worry about? Or was the audience self-selecting? Is it the case that only the women in the construction industry are concerned about poor working conditions, or can see the link between how you treat your people and the productivity you achieve? Do women intuitively know that the current situation cannot continue?
Of course, the people issues in the industry are about much more than gender and ethnicity. They include the industry's image – how it is perceived by its customers, its workers, and the public at large. Don't forget that it was not only Sir Michael Latham and Sir John Egan who emphasised how poorly the industry had been regarded in the past. Clients bore the brunt of construction's dire record on time and cost control. They held the industry in such low esteem that they actually expected their projects to come in late and over budget, with major defects requiring remedial work before the building could be efficiently used.
The effect of this poor image was not only to lower the industry and its practitioners in the eyes of the City – resulting, as Sir John Egan showed, in a relatively low capital asset value, unattractive to investors – but actually to discourage good people from seeking a career in the industry. Who wants to be publicly associated with an industry that was depicted as poorly managed, unethical in its business dealings, adversarial in its contracting, and at odds not only with its customers but with the other members of the supply team?
All this is changing now, and we should not play down the real improvements that have become apparent over the past few years since the industry decided to get its act together.
Is it the case that only the women in the construction industry are concerned about poor working conditions, or can see the link between how you treat your people and the productivity you achieve?
We shouldn't underestimate the way in which co-ordinated industry-wide activities such as National Construction Week and the Considerate Constructors Scheme have raised the industry's profile in the public mind. Those of us who are parents of small children, and who work in the industry, are gratified by their delight in Bob the Builder and his friends – and who could have foreseen that 10 years ago? Clients are demanding that their suppliers provide recognition of the skills and training of their workforce through schemes like the Construction Skills Certification Scheme; professional advisers are having their training and functions re-examined as part of the strategic forum's radical proposals for the industry's future. We are moving together into the modern business world, and following other industrial sectors of the UK economy that have been similarly modernised and are now reaping the benefits.
But to maintain the momentum requires the continuing commitment of management, and the recognition that, however sophisticated the systems, a service industry – and construction is a service – relies eventually on its people.
On the BBC programme Back to the Floor, company managers spend a week at the sharp end of their organisations. This allows them to experience the working of their companies from a very different perspective. It's wonderful to see the changes that suddenly become essential for the good of the company.
I remember once having a discussion with the managing director of a major contractor.
No matter what we discussed or what I suggested, he assured me his company already did it. Eventually we both sat back and laughed, and he admitted he was probably the wrong person to ask! He assumed everything I was suggesting happened. After all the majority of it was good common sense, but in reality he had no idea. And yes, when we did some work to find out what actually happened, the reality was very different. But at least he admitted he didn't know – and did something about it.
Zara Lamont is chief executive of the Confederation of Construction Clients.