As if babies didn’t create enough havoc in the lives of their dads, they are now threatening to disrupt their employers, too. The government wants to give new fathers three months’ paternity leave on £106 a week. But in the macho world of construction, how many would actually take it?… Illustration by Max Schindler
As an industry staffed largely by men, construction has felt the impact of changes in maternity leave legislation less than other sectors. So when the government announced its Work and Families Bill last week, the idea of extending working mothers’ statutory allowance from six to nine months didn’t cause much of a stir.
The possibility of their partners being able to take the last three months of that leave instead, however, is a different matter. As they would receive statutory pay, the government has gone even further in the bill than the option six months’ unpaid leave that had been touted. The prospect of losing valuable manpower on site or key members of management staff for months at a time – as opposed to the two weeks available to fathers at the moment – is potentially alarming for construction firms that are struggling to meet project deadlines with an ever diminishing workforce.
The question is, how many men will actually take the extended leave? Construction as an industry is not known for its enlightened approach to gender roles and the statutory allowance of £106 a week will mean a significant drop in salary for most. So how worried should firms be?
Certainly the Construction Confederation doesn’t seem too anxious. “We don’t see there being much take-up,” says Gerry Lean, director of industrial relations. “It’s the culture of the industry – it’s a little bit behind the times. I can’t see a large number of building site workers saying, ‘I’ll stay home and look after the child while the wife goes to work’.”
Besides, he continues, it’s not as if all the eligible men in the industry are going to suddenly father babies at the same time. Nevertheless, the confederation will be calling for men to give three months’ notice if they do intend to take paternity leave. After all, he says: “If a lady’s going out on maternity leave, it’s pretty obvious. But, if all of a sudden an employer is told, ‘Next week I’m going to take three months’ paternity leave’, that’s not going to work.”
With 365 employees, 80% of whom are men, medium-sized contractor Botes is exactly the kind of firm you might expect to be dreading the loss of its male staff to childcare – but corporate marketing manager Eddie Fowler says he’s not worried either. “We don’t feel it’ll have much effect because most people who work within the industry can’t afford to take time off on statutory pay, and most are the breadwinners in their families.”
He even goes on to make the cynical suggestion that “maybe that’s why the government did it; they bring in a piece of legislation that looks nice and family friendly in the knowledge that it won’t actually happen”.
But not everyone is so sanguine. Whether people take it or not, the system is undoubtedly going to be complex to administer and Chris Magee, managing director of 150-strong builder Knowles, fears that it will be “another burden we’ve got to manage”.
At Chase Norton, a Midlands-based contractor with 120 workers, non-executive chairman George Marsh agrees. He estimates that there have already been 160 changes to employment regulations in the past year: “For a medium-sized business, it’s quite a challenge keeping up.” Even though the government is picking up the tab for fathers’ time off, there’s still the question of replacing people. “It’s a significant cost to us. Ideally we need continuity and if people are out, we have a disruption in our operations.”
He also believes the culture of the industry is changing, which might worry the Construction Confederation. “We’ve noticed a trend – more people are taking a degree of leave when their partner has a baby.”
However devoted a family man you are, you’ve still got to pay the mortgage, and the decision on who looks after the children and who goes back to work will inevitably be a financial one.
I can’t see a large number of building site workers saying, ‘I’ll look after the child while the wife goes to work’Gary Lean, Construction Confederation
Alan Baker, managing partner in charge of human resources at QS Gleeds, says that “you can count on the fingers of one hand” the number of new fathers who have taken the current two-week paternity leave in his firm. “We find that where there’s a reduction in pay, people are reluctant to take it up.”
Revealingly, the situation is markedly different at Bovis Lend Lease, which gives new fathers four weeks’ off and pays both mothers and fathers their full salaries for the duration of leave. There, head of human resources John Davidson says that 21 people have taken those four weeks, 14 have taken two and a further three have taken one week off. “We see it as something that helps with the attraction and retention of staff,” he says.
The impact on blue-collar workers may be a red herring – the three-month paternity swap is only available for families where both parents work. So unless the mother can earn more by returning to work than her partner, it’s going to mean a drop in the household income. Without putting too fine a point on it, it’s more likely to be the white-collar professionals of the construction industry who have the family set-up, not to mention the inclination, to take advantage of the government’s offer.
Ted Runciman, HR director at QS Currie & Brown, says his firm will definitely be taking into account the large numbers of potential fathers among its staff as it revamps its succession-planning policy. “The sheer numbers give you a headache of how to plan ahead for it. We have to think carefully about continuity planning, and about who backs up who. I don’t think large numbers will take it, but even a small number of key people can still present a planning situation we need to consider.”
Bovis’ Davidson warns that construction will feel the effects more keenly than other industries. “In manufacturing or banking for example, policies such as flexitime can be made to work. But construction projects have fixed timelines. Three months is not a long time in career terms, but it’s big if you’re a senior manager on a project. It could have an enormous effect if the person is the lead consultant on a scheme.”
The male-dominated, sometimes macho, culture of the industry is not a reason for complacency over the impact of extended paternity leave, he believes, but something that has to change to minimise the potential hit. “Obviously, anything that affects the male population is going to have a big impact on construction companies because the gender balance is so out of sync. If we had a more balanced workforce, it would even itself out.”
And perhaps this legislation, should it make it to the statute book, will have exactly that effect. Sandi Rhys-Jones, a non-executive director at contractor Simons Group, says she knows a number of successful women in the industry who rely on their husbands to look after the children. She has also noticed a general culture shift in favour of more involved fathers – her son recently took a week of paternity leave and ended up extending it to the full fortnight. “The change in many men’s attitudes to the importance of family life is quite remarkable. Life is so much faster, busier, more dynamic these days and becoming a parent is such a change to your life that an increasing number of men decide to take time out and play a greater part.”
How far this will permeate into construction has yet to be seen, but perhaps HR directors should dust off that succession policy, just in case …
Michael Stokes, director at consultant Precept
The practicalities of life mean that most people won’t take up the offer of £106 a week. Although three months doesn’t sound a long time, it would dent your reputation. But I have a young family so if I wanted to take a couple of months off, I’d like that to be possible.
Andy Armstrong, graduate engineer at Faber Maunsell
I’d like to take the paternity leave because I think it’s as important for the father to bond with the child as the mother. I think a lot of people will take more than two weeks, but maybe not the full three months.
Nick Francis, associate at architect
As a parent, I think it would be great. But I don’t think a young small practice can subsidise that amount of time away. Also, I’m married to another architect and it’s not the best-paid career in the world – it would be difficult to go from two full salaries down to one and the statutory pay.
Barry Laycock, associate at QS Davis Langdon
I don’t know how many men would take it up, particularly in our profession. They might worry how it would be perceived or that it would put their careers on hold. It will also depend on how each family is set up. It might appeal if the woman is in a better job than her partner.
Jonathan Willcock, quality, health, safety and environment manager at EMCOR
I don’t think I would take it – I’ve just become a father and I only took three days off. My job wouldn’t allow me to take three months off – I’d just have three months’ work to catch up on when I got back.
Andrew Bradley, associate director,
I definitely wouldn’t take three months off. In an industry where people are responsible for projects, disappearing for three months doesn’t sound practical. And £106 isn’t that enticing – it’s effectively like not being paid. I had my daughter last December and I took annual leave.