A recent CIOB survey touches on a human resources timebomb: an ageing population is changing the dynamics of construction workforces and employers’ HR policies

The most noticeable change in the workforce these days might be the number of empty desks where redundancies have been made. But there are other, longer term trends that employers should be aware of: the shrinking pool of younger people coming into the workforce, and the fact that we are living longer, healthier lives, for example.

Add to this the declining value of pension pots, 2006 legislation that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of age, and survey evidence from the CBI that shows as many as one in three workers asking to work beyond 65 and you have a considerable shift in attitudes to extending working lives.

These trends are clear to see in the results of a CIOB online survey on the ageing population, conducted during February. Of the 2,096 respondents, 64.9% agreed that the collective face of construction was getting older, while 52% thought an ageing workforce represented serious challenges for the industry in the future.

The underlying reasons included people living longer (12.6%), a reduction in young people entering the industry (31.9%), the exodus of young migrant workers (0.9%), people not being able to afford retirement (12.5%), and inadequate pension provision (34.4%).

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says companies need to get their strategies right to compensate for the limited supply of young labour in the future. ‘It’s a challenge for everyone to rethink how we recruit and retire people. Think about what’s in your interests, especially if you have had difficulty recruiting skilled staff in the past,’ says Worman.

Where companies do need to make cuts in the recession, Worman says flexible retirement policies – with staff perhaps working two or three days a week – could be an effective solution for both sides. ‘If older workers don’t want to leave, why not listen, especially when they have something to offer?’ she says. ‘And they often have an appetite to share their knowledge and mentor younger people.’

Dr Vanessa Beck, a senior lecturer in employment studies at the University of Leicester who recently undertook research for the Learning and Skills Council, also argues that older workers can be recruited as training assessors or mentors for younger staff.

‘There’s a danger of losing a huge amount of skills and expertise for good – it’s a huge danger in a lot of sectors, not just construction,’ says Beck. ‘But if older workers can be involved in the learning that goes on in the company, that ties them in further. And that message holds true in the recession.’

Her research discovered many examples of good practice. Jelson Homes runs a ‘Quarter of a Century Club’, a social network for current and retired staff who have worked at the company for 25 years. The last annual dinner was attended by 203 members: 124 retired employees and 79 currently at the firm.

‘The dinners are very popular – employees have requested that their retirement dates be delayed in order that they could qualify to join the club and be a “25-year man”,’ says Anne de Vere Hunt, Jelson Homes’ HR director.

Clerk of works practice Hickton also values its older workers: around 15% of the 55-strong workforce is over 65, and the eldest is in his 70s.

‘We find that our older clerks of works have a strong work ethic and are extremely reliable with excellent team-building abilities,’ says a company spokesman. ‘And people rarely like to take advice from somebody younger than themselves, so being a mature person can be a definite advantage.’

In addition, recent evidence challenges the perception that people become physically and cognitively less able in old age: current thinking is that we can generally continue to do what we’ve always done, whether on site or at a desk.

So the 48% of respondents to the CIOB survey who said their company would give equal consideration to potential employees who were nearing retirement age clearly have the right idea.

'I'll guide younger people in the right direction'

Michael Warden, 66, a senior site manager with Kilby & Gayford is one of many older workers in the construction industry who have postponed their retirement.

‘My greatest interest is the work I do. I’ve worked on St Paul’s, and Westminster Central Hall. I get great satisfaction out of working with the design teams, and often they’re amenable to taking on board my ideas and experience. I think experience counts for a great deal.

‘I’ve been directly employed with Kilby & Gayford for 10 years, and freelance for three. When I turned 65, I had a meeting with the chief executive, and he asked me what I’d like to do. I said I’d like to stay on, and he said that they’d be glad to have me.

‘At the moment I’m partnering on an office refurb project in Mortimer Street, central London, helping the site manager to get the building finished off. If there are younger people on a job, I’ll guide them in the right direction, and show them how to do things. I’ve got a good working knowledge of most trades, so it gives me a licence to direct people, or show them other ways of doing things.

‘I’ve never had any funny comments like “you old git, isn’t it about time you retired?” I’m an easy-going person, I’ve managed people for a long time, and I haven’t had anything like that. I’m fairly fit, if you were to see me, you wouldn’t guess my age – I get that all the time.

‘I earn a reasonable amount of money, it’s nice to have the money to be able to do things. If I did retire, I wouldn’t be able to do those things. But I like what I do. If I didn’t get that satisfaction, then I wouldn’t be here.’

Need to know

Safety culture report

A report examining the role of safety culture on workplace accidents has been published by occupational health and safety organisation the British Safety Council. Engaging with Safety Culture: A Review of Current Thinking and Practice surveys the experience of four major companies, among them the building contractor Rok, in driving improvements in safety culture.

Each considered the impact of resources, and how people behave and feel, to emphasise how employee engagement and communication drive cultural change.


Gypsum disposal guidance

From 1 April new regulations prevent contractors from sending plasterboard mixed with biodegradable waste to landfill. Previously, construction waste containing up to 10% gypsum did not require separate disposal. Guidance from the Environment Agency states that firms should separate gypsum-based material from other wastes so it
can be recycled, reused or disposed of properly at landfill, and not deliberately mix gypsum waste or plasterboard with other waste.


Paving the way to clear air

Interpave has produced new guidance on best practice when managing the health risks associated with cutting stone or concrete paving that can release silica dust. The Cutting Paving document highlights the correct approach when planning work – which is to avoid or minimise cutting, then control dust generation during cutting - and provides a case study of a company working to reduce risks on site by using efficient design. The guidance is released to complement the HSE’s Clear The Air! multimedia campaign on silica dust.


Back to basics briefing - 4. How bonds work

Clients and main contractors use bonds to reduce and manage the risk of poor performance, insolvency or other types of default by parties they are in contract with. Typically, they will ask a contractor or subcontractor to take out a bond to protect themselves in the event of those parties defaulting.

The types bonds most typically used are:

  • Performance bonds, which guarantee payment of damages to the client in the event of a contractor’s default.
  • Advance payment bonds, which guarantee any advance payments made by a client to a contractor.
  • Retention bonds, which are available instead of a retention.
  • Maintenance bonds. These are payable if the contractor does not perform their obligations during the maintenance or defects liability period.
  • Road and sewer bonds. Contractors offer these to local authorities to guarantee the cost of constructing roads and sewers to an adoptable standard.
  • In all such bonds, the bank or insurance company (also known as the ‘bondsman’) charges the party requiring the bond a fee and obtains an indemnity from the party to return any money that has to be paid out under the bond.
  • If you are being offered a bond, you should check that it allows you to make alterations to the underlying contract (including granting extensions of time, making concessions and resolving disputes). Get the wrong wording (which you may not realise until you have to claim) and the protection you think you have may be illusory. For this reason, you should really run all such bonds past your lawyers.

Stephen Clarke is head of construction at law firm Clarke Willmott

What can you do to retain staff?

Watch out for two new campaigns aimed at helping employers find flexible ways to retain staff and productivity in the downturn. Recruitment firm Reed is asking firms to pool ideas to Keep Britain Working, such as extra leave in exchange for temporary pay cuts, or deploying staff on voluntary community projects. Work Wise Week on 12-18 May, run by the TUC and CBI, encourages staff to work from home or mobile offices, and attend virtual meetings to cut costs.