Principal Thoughts: Advocating a more compassionate construction industry

Posted on: 2019-02-21

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. This month, Ashley surveys the UK construction industry and sees some encouraging signs in terms of protecting its workers and safeguarding building projects but feels more can be done.

There’s no shying away from it – at times the construction industry has had a poor reputation for worker conditions and there has been inconsistency in its commitment to using the highest-quality materials.

Cutting costs can ultimately lead to questionable decisions being taken by some decision-makers in the industry.

Yet, the construction industry is responsible for all the buildings around us and there are countless examples of high achievement and everyday success for every Qatar World Cup stadium scandal and the watershed shame of Grenfell.

A changing landscape

The construction industry is incredibly complex, particularly in terms of its supply chain and it is here where cracks can appear and unethical practices can take hold.

Fortunately, plenty of organisations are holding the industry to account and construction firms themselves are taking the lead to implement better working practices.

A key driver in bringing about change was the passing of the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 which forced UK-based businesses with a turnover of more than £36m to provide an annual report on what they are doing to tackle slavery in their supply chains.

I’m delighted that one of the professional bodies which accredits our construction programmes, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) has taken the lead in campaigning to tackle modern slavery in construction, producing critical reports on the subject.

As the world’s largest and most influential professional body for construction management and leadership, the CIOB’s campaign to tackle modern slavery is important and catalytic for the industry.

A further move to rid the industry of slavery and exploitation in its workforce arrived with last month’s news, as reported in The Global Recruiter, that the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) had secured more than 70 signatories to its Construction Protocol.

The signatories are big hitters within the construction industry and the Protocol is a joint agreement aimed at eradicating modern slavery and labour exploitation from its supply chains.

Modern slavery and labour exploitation cannot continue, and I’m pleased to see the industry is taking steps to eradicate both and modernise in a rapidly progressive and critical society.

Post-Grenfell improvements

The trauma of Grenfell looms large in the UK and the public outpouring of grief in the aftermath secured action in the form of huge fundraising to go towards the victims’ families and improvements at other tower blocks.

Early steps to solve the wider issue of unsafe cladding in high-rise tower blocks have been made with the UK government releasing the first £248m share of funding for councils to act in October.

It’s quite right that the immediate concern should be in making accommodation safe at all at-risk tower blocks, however, appraising the root cause and seeking to change the culture which led to Grenfell is key to bringing about long-term improvements.

Collaboration within the construction industry is vital and the inaugural UCEM Skills Summit we held in October 2017 was useful in bringing key stakeholders together and seeking to bring about positive change for the industry as one united voice.

Dr Peter Bonfield, who attended the Summit at the time in his role as Building Research Establishment (BRE) CEO, spoke passionately about the importance of equipping Built Environment professionals with the skills to ensure a Grenfell would never happen again.

Without even getting into the dearth of Built Environment professionals, Peter felt the sector wasn’t doing enough to prioritise CPD and keep up-to-date with the latest standards.

Everyone who attended the Summit agreed we could be doing more and we will be doing our bit when we launch our new Building Control programmes; Building Control being a vital cog of the Built Environment concerned with making buildings safe for their inhabitants.

We cannot sit still and will always be seeking to improve our programme offer in line with an ever-changing Built Environment landscape. This is true of the construction industry too, where greater collaboration and commitments to high standards should always be at the top of the agenda.

Increasing the talent pool

As touched upon in my reference to the Skills Summit, there isn’t a large enough workforce within the construction industry. The UK, against a backdrop of political and economic uncertainty, is embarking upon ambitious infrastructure projects, such as HS2, but the construction industry is struggling to meet the demand to facilitate all the government’s Built Environment plans.

The industry has to work harder to attract new talent, actively targeting underrepresented groups to increase its workforce. This acknowledgement was also borne out of the UCEM Skills Summit and I had the fortune shortly after to meet Rebecca Lovelace, the Co-Founder of Building People.

Building People seeks to match Built Environment firms with jobseekers from groups associated with widening participation. Rebecca’s aims were entirely consistent with the approach we were looking to engender post-Skills Summit and this culminated in UCEM acquiring Building People.

It’s still early days but I am confident that Building People will be a vital component within the construction industry, and wider Built Environment, and help broaden its workforce.

Work to do

The construction industry is adapting to the modern world and acknowledging the issues which have formed over the years. As one of the leading providers of construction-related degree programmes, we are adapting too.

Both the industry and UCEM, however, cannot rest on our laurels and it is imperative that, through collaboration, tougher scrutiny and greater outreach that the positives of construction are for all to see and immoral or negligent practices are banished for good.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector through excellence in online education. We deliver approved apprenticeship programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. For more information take a look at our Study With UCEM page.

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