In a world of constant and significant change, the construction industry needs to transform itself in order to be fit to face the future
At Rider Levett Bucknall, we have a rotating chair of our nine-person global board, each term lasting two years. This has two benefits: it ensures that the leadership and its vision remains fresh; but as the chair is elected from the same board, the leadership also remains consistent and stable.
There’s a lot to be said for stability at the moment. When I took on the role in 2015 it looked as if the world was finally emerging from the legacy of the global financial crisis, and few people envisaged the political changes that we have seen both locally and globally.
Internationally I see the world getting even smaller - with sharing of resources and exchange of data across continents, the rising scale and sophistication of the Chinese construction sector and the changing face of professional services businesses. This is a global context of significant change - even turmoil.
What does the future look like for the millennials – how do we provide buildings for the way they live, work and play?
But change is an inevitable part our industry and how we handle it is key to our success. My work with the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) and my continued role as a member of the RLB global board brings this into very sharp focus. I experience the full gamut of our industry, from the most sophisticated technology and manufacturing to the most basic building techniques, and I see an industry that demonstrates both the very best of best practice and some appallingly bad practice. In order to be in good shape to weather the global changes that surround us, we must manage our own change: retain some aspects of the industry; and ditch others.
So, where do we need to make improvements? In the post-Brexit vote era, with the government now heavily focused on a UK industrial strategy, the CLC is playing a key role as the interface between the construction sector and the government. The government wants a more efficient construction sector and will flex its buying power to drive changes in industry behaviour - to normalise best practice.
In July, the CLC hosted a conference with 120 industry leaders at the Advanced Manufacturing Centre in Coventry, where we engaged with the wider construction sector and expanded on our key objective of working towards improvements in three key areas:
How do we achieve this? Hopefully, with our help. My challenge as a CLC work stream leader is to facilitate ways of working, which the government will support and the industry will adopt, to ensure:
As highlighted in Mark Farmer’s review, Modernise or Die, this will require the acknowledgment of some industry home truths and a level of alignment within the industry which we sometimes get a glimpse of on great projects - such as the London Olympics or Crossrail - but rarely see on a day-to-day basis.
This won’t necessarily be easy but the prize for the industry is great - £650bn in the infrastructure pipeline alone in the next 10 years - and the necessity is compelling - an ageing, under-skilled workforce buoyed up with imported labour, and a national debt that continues to grow (though not quite as fast) despite years of austerity measures.
And that’s by no means the only change that is coming - and that we need to anticipate and adapt to. I have written before in Building about the ageing population and how we need to address their build needs - but what about the younger demographic: what does the future look like for the millennials? How do we provide buildings for the way they live, work and play? How do we build affordable housing? How will education provision change? What will the industry’s reaction be to rising student debt and perhaps most importantly how will we encourage the next generation to join an ageing industry?
And speaking of demographics, I can’t help feeling that the gender and ethnicity pay differentials revealed in the BBC’s publication of top salaries will look exemplary when compared with the similar lists that will, by law, be published by companies in our sector over the next 12 months. These things matter enormously to millennials and millennials matter enormously to the future success of our industry.
There are different ways of doing things - it can work. One of the great privileges of having been the RLB chair was to see what lessons we can learn from our partners worldwide and see how practices abroad are playing out. In China, the gender balance in construction professional services is pretty much 50/50. In Europe, education, training and development in the construction sector is highly valued and well developed and in South Africa being a quantity surveyor is seen as a highly esteemed career. And the privilege of being a member of the CLC is that I am in a position where I may, in a small way, be able to use this knowledge to the wider benefit of our sector.
Ann Bentley is a member of RLB’s global board, the Uk Government’s Construction Leadership Council and the CBI’s Construction Council