It’s no secret that construction has been going through a rough patch in the past couple of years. Amidst the pandemic, output plummeted to record lows the likes of which it has yet to return from, despite it being one of the first industries to also bounce back in some way later.
However, the aftermath of the past two years has proved to have more staying power than originally thought, with a skills shortage and change in work culture being some of the most impactful structural changes from the Covid fallout.
Combined with the European worker exodus following Brexit and the government mandated pledge to reach net zero by 2050, the industry has a long way to go before it reaches the point of stability it saw before 2020, albeit a different kind.
Fortunately, political figures like London Mayor Sadiq Khan have pledged that construction will be a vital part of the capital’s recovery, a sentiment shared by those in similar circles. PM Boris Johnson has long been on record stating that construction, with its lucrative, large-scale contracts can provide local and regional economies with a healthy shot of productivity.
Indeed, the economic contribution that construction provides – around £110bn per year in the UK alone – ensures that there will always be a place for it on the table of society, but it may just be this sense of security that has allowed the industry to grow significant holes in its reputation.
Poor mental health, patchy payment cultures, health & safety scandals – all symptoms of a sector experiencing unsustainable growth. So, how do those within construction play their part in restoring a waning reputation and adapt to the new post-Covid climate that it finds itself in with new recruits?
Challenging the Norm
Kim Bishop heads the HR department for family-run environmental operations and civil engineering firm Land & Water. She believes that it isn’t the sector itself that is unappealing inherently, rather some of its peripheral issues. Notably, the mobile working culture that demands workers are moved from site to site around the country with less time at home.
“Traditionally, that was okay”, Bishop says, “people just accepted it because that was the way it was, but now a lot more people aren’t so keen to do that. A lot of newer people to the sector especially don’t like to stay away from home.”
One recruiting approach Land & Water is developing to overcome this is more geographically targeted recruiting. In other words, according to Bishop: “Where do we think we’re going to be in the next few years, and can we target particular skills in a more focused way?”
“We have a lot of people that are really passionate about what they do and that they can see the effects that it has on the environment”, Bishop notes. “In a recent employee survey one of the main things that came from it is that they love their jobs and are proud of the difference they can make.”
Outside of a fair wage, work that provides tangible positive results on the environment and a sense of purpose are at the top of many workers’ priorities, especially around young people.
“People have lots of different motivations and some are purely motivated by money, and whilst that is important and you must be fair and get it right, I think we hire people that are motivated by what we do and how they can have an impact”, Bishop adds.
Tied into this recruitment process is the focus on decarbonisation. In a time where the country is now on the clock to reach net zero carbon emissions, linking this to hiring those most interested in environmental stewardship is a quietly shrewd move.
With an entire task force focusing on their carbon output, Land & Water has decarbonisation as a major focus of its current and future business, something which seeps into its company culture.
“Having a really positive culture is something that people are more interested in now, and part of that culture for a lot of people focuses on whether you’re doing the right thing for the planet”, Bishop points out younger people will have more of a vested interest in it as they want somewhere to be as they grow older!
Rather than slowing the hiring process Bishop insists that, if anything, it helps in selecting people who will fit the organisation’s ethos.
“It’s screening people out that aren’t interested in working for this sort of company with these sorts of values and that’s good because if they don’t fit with what we stand for and the values that are important to us, it probably wouldn’t work in the long term anyway.
“It’s about branding, isn’t it? When you’re going out to the market, it’s about making sure that you’re clear in the messaging that you put out there and that you attract people that are interested”, Bishop notes.
Having worked in HR for over 30 years with a MSc in Occupational Psychology, Bishop is well versed in the ‘people-side’ of a company, including bringing in new hires and maintaining relationships.
“It’s important to build the relationships with people that are out there doing the projects and making yourself known and approachable so that when there are things people want to talk about that they don’t want to approach with a manager, there’s another route for them”, she explains.
This kind of communication is important in a sector where mental health, brought on by rampant macho culture, leads to many within it to hiding their problems, compounding their problems further.
Land & Water has a director entirely focused on wellbeing whose role is to “visit sites and talk to people regularly to make sure they’re okay and focus on giving them support when things are tough”.
With construction companies increasing ever more by the day, it’s clear by the way that some of the smaller firms operate that a macro-approach to the industry’s shortcomings isn’t always effective, and sometimes the targeted tackling of one or two issues makes a world of difference.
“Some of those what you’d perhaps call ‘softer issues’ are important and again make it a more attractive place to work. People know they’re going to be cared for and their work is valued.”
Originally published in the Design & Build UK construction magazine