News & Views

A Tenure of Troubles and Triumphs

We all love a challenge, but I have to admit when I took over as Chair of the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) back in April 2020, I had no idea my tenure would run through one of the biggest, and at times frightening social and commercial challenges of the last 100 years. Surpassing by a long shot even the enormous impact of the 2008 global economic crisis and the pre Brexit slump, COVID-19, as it has become known, could not have been predicted, but its effects, whilst devastating on so many levels, and must not be overlooked, have also shown just how resilient the piling and wider construction sector is.

My pre-COVID agenda was progressive, particularly in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion. I recall stating how much I would like to oversee the formation of a network for under-represented groups working in the industry including women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT+. I also wanted to support the provision of a mentoring system to aid career development and encourage recruitment and retention.

I also wanted to put sustainability on the FPS agenda, see increased promotion of the carbon calculator tool across the industry, and work with the supply chain to enable the use of lower emission alternatives to existing products.

So, two years on, what has the FPS achieved? Well, let’s start with COVID. Early in the pandemic the FPS recognised there was a lack of clear information and advice members could turn to, so one of the very first initiatives was the establishment of a weekly COVID briefing eBulletin. This document pulled together information from the many public sources with links to more information provided by the government and trade organisations where greater information could be found. Early in the pandemic information was changing at a very rapid pace and the FPS felt distilling what it could source into a single communication would be helpful. Feedback supported this and we continued issuing them until the situation settled and even government knew what it wanted from the construction sector.

Throughout the pandemic the FPS also worked alongside industry bodies, such as Build UK and CLC, adding its collective voice to what eventually led to the easing of restrictions for the sector, the establishment of thorough guidance that allowed allowing safe working and a model that could be considered as construction leading the way when other sectors struggled to adapt. This ‘can-do’ attitude of the construction sector deserves much praise and I suggest is a model other sectors should look to should the need arise again.

The personal impact of COVID highlighted just how important employee welfare is and I was pleased to oversee the completion of the Fatigue Science project to understand the impact of different working patterns on health, wellbeing and performance. The FPS also launched its exploration into flexible working options within the sector. Partnering with Timewise, the flexible working consultancy, the project has produced a framework or guidance to help member companies develop a ‘Flexible Working Initiative’ within their own organisations. Whilst on-site roles will always have inherent difficulties in embracing flexible working, it is encouraging that the process has already seen some companies adopt degrees of flexibility where possible. With the construction sector struggling to recruit and retain good people, and from a more diverse demographic, the lack of flexible working options has to be overcome if these issues are to be addressed.

The FPS’s work on sustainability kicked off with the establishment of its own dedicated working group, tasked to look at what the piling sector and wider construction industry can do to achieve that ultimate goal of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. With so many facets to the task, from water use reduction, carbon reduction targets and carbon emissions benchmarks, through to sharing best practice and the promotion of a sustainability charter, the FPS recognises there is no quick solution, but the working group is able to see how the piling and geotechnical sector can play its part in sustainability, as well as looking at new technologies and working methodologies that all have a part to play. The initiative has also seen supporting webinars run on the topic and also a growth in the use of the carbon calculator, which was developed by the Deep Foundations Institute (DFI) and the European Federation of Foundation Contractors (EFFC), which allows the CO2 emissions of foundation and geotechnical works to be evaluated.

Membership of the FPS has also grown over the last couple of years, helped by the FPS widening membership to include allied industries, such as reinforcement suppliers, that all deserve a voice in how the piling sector works.

Engagement with piling members and the wider geotechnical sector was also stepped up, with a high social media and online and print-based presence. The early careers group, which was set up to help and support emerging talent within the piling and geotechnical sector, has also grown in membership. Recent webinar presentations have even been supported by an international audience and members of the group are actively promoting the industry at school level – all good news for the future of the sector.

The FPS did successfully establish a Mentoring Scheme, to specifically support the goal of increasing the number of currently underrepresented groups within the construction sector, as well as retain those already within it. Such was the potential of the scheme, the FPS collaborated with Ground Forum (GF), who took over the initiative, to better represent the entire ground engineering sector.

Never moving far from its core remit of raising ever higher levels of standards and safety, it was good to see the FPS’s work on restricted zones, recognised with an Award too, taking the top prize in the Health & Safety category at the Ground Engineering Awards in 2021.

The social aspect of the FPS, so dented by COVID restrictions, also returned to some normality with a record turnout at its annual Awards Dinner, and I sincerely hope this most important of Federation activities continues now uninterrupted.

I could go on, but I will conclude this brief overview by commenting how proud I am to be a part of a resilient, vibrant, and forward-thinking sector that FPS members embody. Through the FPS members efforts, the piling sector continues to shine and punch well above its weight. No future is certain, but ours is defiantly a little more secure!