News & Views

It’s a Dirty Job, But Somebody’s Got to Do It – But Who?

The construction industry has come a long way in removing many of its stereotypes, particularly when it comes to sexism, especially since the days of wolf whistles from the scaffolding and the leering from the white van, but I still think there is some way to go in all areas and what is required is less chat and more positive action.

The construction industry is bouncing back and I sincerely hope this recovery is sustained, although few could have missed the articles appearing in the media about lead times and possible plant and material and shortages, which threaten the speed of this recovery. However, whilst these issues are true and very apparent for some of the Federation of Piling Specialist’s (FPS) members, I worry more a little further down the line. The big issue I feel for the construction sector is the potential shortage of skilled workers and even a general labour shortage.

The problem I see is one of perception – despite the influx of migrant labour, record youth unemployment and the growing economy, it seems to me that construction is just not a place that anyone wants to work in anymore. As I said, short term this is not really a huge issue, but with businesses cautious about recruiting, the fact that construction sector employees are an ageing population and considering industry growth projections then there will be problems ahead. This ‘perception’ issue must therefore be addressed, and soon.

The first question we must ask is why is construction the last career path young people want to walk these days? If you happen to be a young woman then there can be very few industries that are more unattractive to women, who I know typically view the sector as old fashioned, dirty and sadly despite serious efforts, sexist.

Ask some industry experts and they will suggest that pay and more attractive alternative forms of employment are the reasons behind its lack of appeal, but I think the problem is much more complicated. Maybe I’m sticking my neck out, but I believe there is a long-standing, deep rooted perception problem with the construction industry and that it is locked into a system that starts with education, and moves onto the media, the construction sector itself and right through to a government that all too often reinforces it.

It’s an inconvenient truth, but there is still an intrinsic and often wrongly held belief that construction is dirty, sexist, a boy’s club, and an unwelcoming sector that really isn’t for anyone that is intelligent and seeking a long-term career path full or opportunities. Architects have got it right – we hear all the time about beautiful buildings – TV even dedicates prime-time airspace to them, yet beyond any issues about its planning or perceived architectural significance, little time is given over to how it was constructed, who built it, or the specialist technologies and contractors that put it there. It is so easy to see the finished project, the airport terminal or the new city skyscraper, and not care about how it got there. We do it for all products really from phones to cars, and who even notices infrastructure – the miles of roads and rail track that connects it all, the maintenance, utilities and renovation work that keeps it up and running? So how do we get young men and women engaged in a sector that despite the “perception” is actually stable, growing, challenging and full of opportunities at all levels?

Perception change must start with the young, which means it must be tackled in schools. Education programmes must adapt to promote it, long before any external influencers have had chance to interfere. Most kids, boys and girls, love machinery and most seem to have no aversion to getting dirty too! This excitement and enthusiasm must be captured and developed before the more ‘trendy’ and fashionable career paths jump in. Construction must no more be positioned as the career path of last resort, as it is so often, and sold as the last resort job if you don’t study hard.

I’m not suggesting preferential treatment (though it would be nice), just that construction, its many facets and rewards, are promoted equally along with presently more fashionable careers. This will require some effort, and maybe even improved links between the construction sector and education, but it is essential the importance, the diversity and opportunities – for both girls and boys – are made through education. This will allow young people to ask more, seek out information and then make a clear and informed choice between the various career options, which would now include construction.

We have to do more ourselves too, especially if we are to attract more women into the sector, to put construction on the employment agenda for young people. Government often cites the construction sector’s importance to the economy, even going so far as stating how it would build us out of recession. Well the talking must end: instead we must throw our support behind the sector and promote its benefits alongside the ‘silicon’ economy and the ever-present financial and creative and arts. Construction companies can do more too as we’re not the best sector at shouting about our successes, or “PRing” ourselves or making ourselves more attractive to women.

The FPS does much to promote its own sector of the industry, supporting and encouraging its members to run open days for school children and other educational programmes – including our very own Apprenticeship Scheme – but so much more can be done by individual companies. Now is the time to shout about exciting projects, provide newsletters to schools and even, where practical, arrange site visits, in partnership with other main and sub-contractors. It may cost a little in time and money but it is time and money well-spent and a great investment in the sector’s future! Perhaps beyond the scope of this article, discussions across the construction industry should be had on how to address the issues in a coordinated and consistent manner?

What we can do now depends on us – maybe the first step starts with taking a good look at our own businesses and to see if we really are talking a good story to the next generation of construction employees. Maybe were are but, based on my perceptions, the chances are – we’re not!