John's column advising middle-class IT consultants not to take up a career as a skilled site worker makes some very accurate observations about the way we work in construction. Indeed, I can directly identify with his comments about site facilities; like him, I have worked as a site carpenter. His column brought rust, mud, a fat-and-carbohydrate-only diet and third-world toilets frighteningly to mind. It might seem romantic to some, but it wasn't then and it isn't now. It is just bad practice.
No matter what the elder statement of our industry might say, it is wrong to champion this as "good old" days. What John describes is not the bastion of macho, working-class stereotypes. It is the result of a working culture that is stuck in the Jurassic era. It is this culture and the horrid conditions we impose on our workers – of all classes, from management to site workers – that has fostered the skills shortage and that has led to UCATT's power to demand improved rates of pay. What John describes, and seeks to protect the innocent from, is nothing to be proud of.
Add this all up, and it is no surprise that Respect for People and construction minister Brian Wilson maintain a strong line on people issues. The computer programmers that John discourages from switching to a construction career might well bring new thinking, raise standards and challenge the way we work. We should be welcoming new people to our industry, from whatever background or walk of life.
It is how we work and what we do on site that matters. Not the money. In a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey, salary ranked low in a list of retention factors. Attracting and then keeping a quality workforce is about more than cash. Everyone should have a decent wage, but money must not cloud the issue, and we cannot buy our way out of a problem that is essentially the result of bad management.
Highest in the CIPD list was working conditions. Our industry needs some ideals to aim for and some benchmarks to be measured by. To make improvements we must pull together. For example, the combined knowledge and skills of George Brumwell and John Smith might make a formidable negotiation team. But more seriously, labour relations and site conditions will only improve if everyone involved throughout the supply chain recognises that there is a problem – and if there is a will to do something about it.
Actions, not words are the answer. The Bristol Best Practice Club is about to put its words into action by adopting the same rigorous approach as the CIOB to site visits. This means specifying that the Considerate Constructors scheme is employed on any sites its members are involved with, as well as boycotting unsafe sites.
Our industry should be seen as a career of choice for thousands of schoolchildren and graduates, whatever their background and whatever their education. Ethnicity, diversity and class should not be barriers to success. But most of all, neither should bad management. Class has got nothing to do with it. If a middle-class computer programmer can work with the industry to improve profitability, increase site safety, boost efficiency and deliver a built environment we can all be proud of, then I'd hire them straightaway.
Brian Moone is chief executive of Construction Best Practice.