One of the slightly surreal aspects of being a woman in the construction industry is that because there aren’t many of us, we regularly get confused with each other. So, by the time I had explained that I was the other Jennie – the one taking over as chief executive of the Construction Confederation – you know, that body representing 5000 contractors and responsible for 80% of the industry’s turnover – the conversation had usually moved on from the dome.
Which is a great pity. Whatever teething problems the dome may be having with ticketing, visitor numbers and computerised exhibits not working (nice to know the IT revolution isn’t quite as fast and flawless as the IT industry claims), it’s a phenomenal structure. In its party dress on new year’s eve, it looked quite simply amazing. And, like it or loathe it, you all know what it looks like and every schoolchild in this country could draw it. That’s a compliment paid to very little of what we create in this industry.
It is also responsible for one of the best advertisements for a career in the construction industry that I’ve ever seen – the BBC2 documentary on the building of the dome, Trouble at the Big Top. People like me often bemoan how little coverage we get in the broadcast media, but Trouble at the Big Top was riveting viewing and, best of all, it was all about construction. One of the highlights was an interview with the American supervisor responsible for ensuring that the skin of the dome was completed on time. His laid back but professional attitude, coupled with the obvious technical complexity of what he was doing, demonstrated perfectly that construction trades are not all – or even mostly – about digging holes in the ground.
As a rule, we are not very good at selling the upsides of our industry to potential recruits. The chief executive of one major contractor tells a wonderful story about attending a parents’ evening at a large school to tell parents and pupils about the joys of working as a contractor. He was received politely enough but when it came to the question and answer session, one mother stood up and asked whether his company provided a swimming pool for its employees. When he said no, she went on to enquire about the availability of a gym, free cordon bleu staff meals and so on. When she received negative responses to every query, she quietly pointed out that, in that case, he had a problem, because they had seen a man from IBM the week before and he was offering all of those things.
Trouble at the Big Top was one of the best advertisements for a career in construction that I’ve ever seen
His response was to try to explain the buzz of being involved in a big construction project – very difficult to do in words alone. But in Trouble at the Big Top, the sense of energy and excitement just leaped off the screen. Everyone wanted to track the project’s progress, to visit the site and to get involved in the decision-making, from cabinet ministers downwards. This was partly because it was such a hot political issue, but also because big projects are genuinely fascinating, and even observers get caught up in their drama.
There must have been young people watching that programme who began to appreciate the range of skills involved, from design to logistics to keeping your temper when all about you are losing theirs, and who thought: “I could do that”, or even better: “I want to do that”.
I also hope the series has generated some public understanding for Jennie Page, who took on the job when all the predictions were that the dome would miss the millennium deadline and be way over budget. She handled a whole range of contributors and stakeholders with considerable patience and skill, and delivered the project on time. It would be unfair if the recent adverse publicity obscured that achievement.
Jennie Price is chief executive of the Construction Confederation.