The carrot and stick approach isn’t right for 21st-century building services. To get the best from staff, managers need to learn new skills

The skills shortage in the building services industry cannot be addressed without first resolving a deficit in the capabilities of the managers responsible for the recruitment, supervision and retention of staff, the 2008 building services survey by Peplow suggests.

Problems are developing as construction companies deploy increasingly into the building services sector. Managers who previously worked on a single big site contract for months may now be coordinating multidisciplinary staff and resources across 20 projects in a week.

Areas of concern include the recording of time and materials. Invoicing is often late and inaccurate. There is some innovation in new systems integration but this is by no means consistent across the sector.

The survey found that the competency of managers in construction lags behind national averages by about 10%. The skills lacked were: setting goals and standards for the organisation and staff; properly appraising people and performance; listening actively; planning work efficiently; and thinking clearly and analytically about issues that arise.

While industry increasingly is seeing an “adult-to-adult” manager relationship with staff, in construction it tends to be on a “parent-to-child” basis, using carrot-and-stick inducements rather than reasoning and logic.

Warning signs of managerial deficiencies are:

• problems with succession planning for the business and key staff

• low profitability

• poor productivity

• poor market consolidation

• ageing workforce

• poor response to environmental and technological challenges and legislation

• skills gaps

The problems can be resolved largely in a relatively short time with suitable training. This should focus on continuing professional development at senior level and personal organisation by managers of their own work and priorities. Education, more than experience, is the factor that most influences a manager’s level of proficiency. Relevant competence must be learned; it is not instinctive and cannot adequately be “picked up on the job”.

Peplow found that certain requirements were critical to successful training. First, for sustainable impact and to ensure long-term change, an organisational development programme is required that includes large groups and impacts on three levels simultaneously: individuals, teams and the organisation.

Training an employee outside the context of his or her job role is much less effective. The training framework should be customised to the organisation’s and individuals’ needs and use a variety of methods, such as in a classroom and home study. Most successful are 12-month development programmes – with delivery “little and often” – which maintain momentum while minimising disturbance to the individual and business.

The process of measurement and benchmarking is important in staff development, as is ensuring support for CPD at the most senior – and sceptical – level.