Laing O'Rourke boss claims sites are ‘no place for women' and that prefabrication will eliminate skills shortages

Laing O'Rourke chairman Ray O'Rourke courted controversy at last week's British Council for Offices conference in Dublin when he declared that women should not work on building sites.

Speaking at a seminar on resource problems facing the industry in the run up to Olympic building work, O'Rourke said skills shortages were not a problem as he aimed to cut the number of workers on Laing O'Rourke sites by 40%.

When challenged over the construction industry's need for more women to be recruited, including to the manual trades, O'Rourke said that a building site "is not a place where women fit."

The comments surprised members of the audience, as Laing O'Rourke has been considered to be one of the more forward-thinking contractors in British construction.

Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, said: "How will this make the many women feel who are already working in the manual trades? I am pretty shocked that he would make those comments - although at least he has the courage of his convictions and isn't saying one thing in public and another in private."

Laing O'Rourke has teamed up with Mace, consultant Davis Langdon and American project manager CH2M Hill to bid for the role of Olympic delivery partner for the 2012 Games.

O'Rourke added that training body CITB was failing in its efforts to attract more graduates and young workers into construction. He said: "The industry has a poor image for young people. We pay the CITB almost £3m per year and we don't get a lot back. I'm saying this to be controversial."

However, he argued that migrant labour was not the solution to skills shortages, adding that workers from "cheap regions" were often "poorly paid and poorly skilled".

O'Rourke's comments came as he outlined plans to reduce the number of site workers by up to 40%.

He said that the number of fit-out workers in particular could be reduced by using prefabricated modules, and added: "My view of the future is that we have to emulate the automotive industry. We will upskill the people we have."

He also called on designers to install more modular units to avoid employing teams of workers to undertake snagging repairs on site.

O'Rourke called for improved procurement practices, to put an end to the combative relationship between clients and contractors on many projects. "Take Wembley. It's a fiasco and a disaster. Unless we can take the conflict out between the promoters of projects and the building of projects then we won't get anywhere."

O'Rourke's comments came as Graham Watts played down fears that the Olympics would lead to a labour shortage. He presented CIC research showing that building work for the Games would account for less than 0.25% of the industry's workforce, with a peak of 7500 workers on the east London site in 2010.

Watts said the biggest shortages would not be for labourers but rather project managers, other professional sectors and civil engineering.

Overall, he said that the total number of workers in the construction industry would rise to 2.8 million by 2010, about 435,000 more employees than at present.

Gary France, director of consultant Mace, echoed fears that the Olympics could be affected by difficulties in finding high-level construction professionals. He said: "The big challenge is in senior management, and [non-Olympic] clients will be securing their A-teams soon."