Back in September 1988, Building ran a series entitled “Crisis? What crisis?” arguing that the market was overheating.
As we now know, it wasn’t so much overheating as in flames: after the slump it took 15 years for the market to regain that level of output. Many of those symptoms are in evidence today, and the cause is the same: too much work and too few people to do it, resulting in an 8% inflation rate and rampant poaching as the industry robs Peter to pay Paul, with a little help from its friends in the recruitment consultancies. So, as the House of Commons’ trade and industry select committee begins a root-and-branch review of the industry, we begin our own examination, opening this week with the dog-eat-dog world of the headhunter.
Last time, the industry imploded and 500,000 people lost their jobs. Nobody expects that to happen again: the economy is stable, the Retail Prices Index is a sedate 2.5%, and we’re free of global panics such as Black Wednesday. House prices may be unfeasibly high, but a few relatively gentle interest rate rises seem to have put the brakes on for the moment. And work levels have grown steadily over the past 12 years, allowing the industry to evolve alongside it – in the eighties it wasn’t unusual for output to increase 5% a year.
So what happens now? Well the forecasters say that despite a cooling of public spending (about which we’ll know more come the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn) we’ve not reached the top of the market. The industry will carry on growing by up to £2bn a year until 2012, when we’re likely to experience a post-Olympic hangover. In many ways that’s fine – who wants to stop growing? But at the same time, it’s hard to reconcile these predictions with the paucity of professionals.
To some extent the industry only has itself to blame for this. A burned manager fears the fire, and over the past decade, those who remember the misery of the early nineties scanned the horizon for the next recession. This had the effect of discouraging investment in training at all levels, from apprenticeships to vocational degrees. In the professions the realisation is there at last that they need to attract non-cognates and train them up. This is obviously a good thing, although alas, it won’t solve the short-term problem.
Some say that coping with handicaps is what construction does best: anyone familar with our on-site features over the years will know that firms are endlessly resourceful. Throw money at them, and they always seems to deliver. But it doesn’t work by magic. A company can outsource back-of-house work to Vietnam and bring in engineers from India, but in the meantime it’s losing professionals to the United Arab Emirates and craftsmen to eastern Europe.
The truth is that every firm is in a battle. The winners will be those with the best leadership, and the best plan – and that means, among other things, training and retaining their troops, and not taking on contracts they can’t do.
Denise Chevin, editor