Following the launch of the CIOB’s new five-year plan, Building spoke to chief executive Caroline Gumble about what makes a modern professional and the challenge of working with an ever-changing rotation of government ministers 

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Caroline Gumble, chief executive of the CIOB

Leading any large organisation is difficult, but leading one as sprawling and global in its reach as the Chartered Institute of Building must be a particular challenge. The 190-year-old professional body has more than 48,000 members in at least 120 countries (the split is roughly 80:20 between the UK and the rest of the world) and across every part of the built environment “from the conception of a building all the way through to demolition”. 

At the top of this pyramid is chief executive Caroline Gumble, who joined the organisation in 2019 from Make UK. Her goal is a not a small one: the creation of a construction industry in which quality and competency is put above profit.

The institute recently published its latest five-year plan, which sets out a roadmap to 2028 for how the organisation will make “modern professionalism […] widely aspired to and increasingly a reality” across worldwide construction by focusing on three key areas – quality and safety, environmental sustainability and closing the skills gap.

What is the CIOB?

The CIOB is a UK-based international professional association which has operated under a royal charter since 1980. Professional designations of MCIOB (member) and FCIOB (fellow) can be attained by members through training with the CIOB’s academy – according to Gumble these qualifications are roughly equivalent to a bachelors and a masters degree, respectively.

Members are required to undertake continuing professional development in order to maintain their professional status. The body also has a disciplinary process for members who carry out poor quality construction work. This results in the dismissal of a handful of members each year.

Gumble says we need to learn to expect the same levels of professionalisation in construction that we would expect of a medical professional. “You would want to make sure that the doctor wasn’t only qualified, but they were part of a professional body that made sure that that doctor had certain ethics, and kept their learning and development up to date,” she says. 

According to Gumble, the industry has for too long been stuck in a vicious circle in which lack of professionalisation created negative perceptions, which in turn prevents talented young professionals from joining the sector. She believes the industry can learn from the journey that the engineering and manufacturing sectors – where she herself made her start – made in improving professional development and thus earning the respect of the public.

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A CIOB graduation ceremony at Painters’ Hall in the City of London

“The term ’engineer’ is very well regarded and respected,” she says, adding that she wants to get construction professionals to that same level. “I think the general public’s perception of construction workers is very negative, and it’s ill-informed,” she adds.

“It’s not their fault – they just have never had exposure, to understand the breadth of the responsibilities of construction managers, for example.” If the institute can break this cycle, Gumble believes it can contribute to solving the industry’s stubborn skills crisis and people problem. 

The CIOB’s global role will soon take its chief executive to the Middle East – a follow up to trips to Oman and Dubai last January – where she will be looking at conditions in local labour camps. With the controversy surrounding the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the planned city of Neom in the Saudi Arabian desert, work done by British built environment firms in the region has been one area where perception of the sector has taken a bit of a hit.

But Gumble insists that UK companies have taken worker welfare “enormously seriously” in the region and says that they in fact “help professionalise and bring the standards up” in the countries they work in.

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“The British media loves to tell the bad stories – and that doesn’t help the image of the sector – [but] I believe there is more positive than negative.” 

The CIOB’s latest corporate strategy has increased its focus on the role of the client, including a nine-year masterplan to drive changes on this side of the industry. “That’s slightly longer [than the five-year plan] because we’ve not focused on the client as much historically,” says Gumble.

Those making procurement decisions do not always understand the importance of working with those with appropriate professional qualifications at the construction phase, she says, and feel they have “ticked the box” as long as they have used a chartered architect. “The client has enormous power,” she adds.

“If we can educate the client to understand the benefits of hiring professionals, the benefits of insisting on quality and safety above cost, to understand the use of environmentally sustainable products, and to treat people on their projects with respect and dignity, then we can help them ask the right questions of those working for them.”

Gumble hopes that, once clients “appreciate and understand the benefits of working with competent professionals”, then firms further down the line will follow suit. 


Source: Shutterstock

Gumble says the UK could learn a thing or two from Malta, where there is a dedicated construction minister and professionalisation requirements are being considered in government procurement

Inevitably, one major client will be the government, and Gumble believes it should be leading by example by adopting requirements in their procurement terms that professionals be used. “I’d like to see it wired in within procurement processes that professionals would be essential or an absolute requirement for any projects to be signed off,” she says.

She compares the situation in the UK with Malta, where the government is close to implementing such requirements. Asked why this policy agenda has been more successful in Malta, Gumble replies that its dedicated construction minister certainly helps.

By contrast, and despite making up more than 6% of the UK economy, construction is just one of the many industries delegated to a junior minister in the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). 

What is more, the industry often has to negotiate with other departments – the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for planning and building regulations, the Treasury and Department for Transport for infrastructure spend – and a host of others for investments in the government’s own capital estate, making any kind of co-ordinated public policy concerning the sector a headache.

“The teams that work for the construction ministers, these civil servants need consistency”

“Construction basically covers every ministerial area […] it doesn’t all come together in one single department, and often my policy team are nearly introducing one civil servant from one department to another,” says Gumble. “There should be somebody at cabinet level, in my view – that would be so helpful and it would also signal how serious the government is about near-term stability for the sector.” 

At the very least, Gumble would like to see the end of the “appalling” ministerial turnover and for industry – and the civil service – to be given the stability needed to make progress. “The teams that work for the construction ministers, these civil servants need consistency,” she says, adding that the revolving door within BEIS – the latest incumbent Nusrat Ghani was the fourth de-facto construction minister appointed in 2022 – shows that government is “not regarding and respecting” construction’s role in society.

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Caroline Gumble, chief executive of the CIOB

Caroline Gumble CV

Gumble began her career in the 1990s as an HR manager with Lucas Industries, a Birmingham-based manufacturer of automotive components, before gaining global experience as director of HR at agricultural machinery firm Ransomes Sims & Jefferies.

In 2003, she joined the Engineering Employers’ Federation (now Make UK) where she served as executive director of the HR unit and later chief operating officer, until her appointed at the helm of CIOB in 2019.

As well as her role at the institute, she is a director of the board of trustees for the Institute of Export & International Trade, and a trustee of the CIOB’s benevolent fund (now known as CIOB Assist).

She has recently been appointed as visiting professor of global engagement and transformation – built environment at Loughborough University’s School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering.

“It has to be because they have been in post so long,” says Gumble, referring to the 13 years of Conservative-led government. “I don’t want to make it party political [but] they are dealing with so many issues, they are so fragmented and fighting for their own survival, it’s as if they’ve sort of forgotten the society that they’re meant to be leading.

“I just don’t think we’re a priority to them, because we are not going to win them the votes. They play to more of a vote-catching agenda than a stable, sustainable agenda for society […] they forget in a way who they are serving.” 

Waiting for a government that gives due attention to construction is likely to be a long game and, in the meantime, Gumble urges those working in the industry to take it upon themselves to join a professional body – she would “love it” to be the CIOB, she says – in order to set them apart from their peers.

With a recession looming, firms may find themselves relying more and more on their reputation for quality in order to find work. As Gumble notes, every firm has two bank accounts: “One has got the cash in it and the other has got their reputation.

Three pillars of the CIOB’s five-year plan

The institute’s focus on quality and safety and follows concerns in recent years that the safety of the built environment had for a long time been taken for granted – with disastrous consequences. The CIOB is aiming to become the leading provider of safety training for the built environment globally, and to bring about a “culture change” in the industry to ensure that quality and building safety are “never sacrificed for profit”.

The focus on environmental sustainability will be embedded into the CIOB’s learning programmes across schools, colleges and universities in the next five years. The organisation wants to equip its members with “the knowledge and skills to manage and deliver” green construction and to support the industry in building the case for change.

Its final objective is to “contribute tangibly” to reducing the skills shortage in construction, by improving the perception of the sector, championing diversity, inclusion and worker welfare, and facilitating “smooth, motivating routes within the industry to continually develop the skills of modern professional construction management”.