In order to put things into perspective, let me give you some background on this friend (whom I shall call Bob). Bob and I have known each other for years. Our paths have crossed on various sites while working "on the tools" and both of us went to the same university to study for our construction management degrees having decided to "upskill" during the height of the last recession. That had left us without regular work and the little work we did get was in terrible conditions and for much less pay than we had been getting.
After our degrees, Bob decided that he wanted to get into site management and immediately got a job with a reputable housebuilder. Once he had several successfully managed projects and a few years' experience under his belt, Bob moved to another organisation. He had, in any case, been unhappy about the poor level of pay he was receiving compared with what he got as a bricklayer. The move led to promotion and his current job as senior projects manager.
This fast-track promotion was, I believe, a direct reflection of the experience he gained while training and working on the tools and in site management. This acquaintance with work on both sides of the fence enables him to anticipate problems better, solve them more efficiently and plan out many before they even occur.
Still, even Bob gets stuck with some things, as I found out the other day when I called to catch up on things and to ask him how his projects were going. He laughed and said: "Fine, apart from the fact that one of my site managers can't manage." He went on to explain the shortfalls of this site manager and the problems that were arising because of what Bob described as poor management skills. I was intrigued and asked where the site manager had received his management training, to which my friend chuckled and said: "What management training? He's a crane driver!" Now, don't get me wrong, I think skilled tradesmen make excellent managers – as long as they have the right training. On my degree course all three of the first-class Honours awarded went to ex-tradesmen. The problem is that the skills necessary to be a good manager are completely different from those required to be a good tradesman. I know this from my own experience of moving from working on the tools to working in the office.
In today's environment of innovative management techniques, change initiatives and continuous improvement, the modern construction manager can no longer be plucked from the tools, moved into a site cabin and expected to deliver the time, cost and quality demands of clients.
Modern managers must be able to implement changes and make informed decisions, often without warning. They should be able to deal with unique situations while under intense pressure. They will need diplomacy, understanding and communication skills. They will need to be able to relate to and deal with people from all walks of life. And above all, they will have to enjoy what they do, because the payback, conditions and respect they receive will be pretty poor in comparison to those of their peers outside the industry.
As Egan states: "If the industry is to achieve its full potential … [it] must provide decent and safe working conditions and improve management and supervisory skills at all levels." If we can identify those operatives who wish to pursue a career in construction management and give them the right incentives and the right training then I believe that we will help to solve the current skills shortage. And who knows, this in turn may lead to a leaner industry delivered by multiskilled site managers, able to produce more with fewer resources.
John Mead is a former site carpenter and a senior team member with the Movement for Innovation seconded from the Construction Industry Council.