It is a common complaint for those who work in the construction sector; why does the industry have a negative reputation?

It is a serious problem because it makes it harder to attract new entrants to the sector. In the next four years, 158,000 new professionals are needed (via CITB). That is in addition to replacing losses through retirement, people leaving the industry and any impacts caused by Brexit.

A major factor is the way the public interacts with the sector. There are three levels:

  • National – negative news has a hugely damaging effect on the reputation of the sector. In the last year, there has been the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Garden Bridge fiasco, and the collapse of Carillion, to name just three
  • Local – many people interact with the sector through public consultations. Even positively received schemes cause displacement and disruption for some people. This may be direct, for example a CPO process, or indirect, like the day-to-day operations of a building site (which often cause noise, pollution and traffic issues)
  • Personal – where an individual may have received poor customer service. This may be for home maintenance or repairs, or for buyers who move into a newly built property and are faced with a long snagging list

How can we get things to change?

This is not a question of having a branded campaign. There have been many over the years, but they do not target the issues at the heart of construction’s poor reputation.

If you look at surveys that ask what young people want from employers, three things usually come up – a focus on ethics, diversity and well-being. The construction sector has some problems in this regard:

  • People want to work in companies that reflect who they are: The sector represents 10% of all UK jobs and nearly 7% of the economy. Yet, only 13% of the workforce are women (with a significant gender pay gap), and 4% are from BAME backgrounds
  • Sustainability is an issue: 45% of UK carbon emissions come from the built environment. Changes to design, construction methods, and use of materials can reduce this
  • A lack of collaboration reduces the industry’s ability to help solve social issues: However, when it does join up it can be successful (CRASH, the construction industry’s charity, is a great example of tackling an issue together, in this case homelessness)

If the sector can demonstrate change in these areas, the industry’s reputation would improve significantly.

What stops this happening?

The challenge is that the sector is large and fragmented. Competition is strong between companies throughout the supply chain, as well as between membership and trade bodies. Margins are tight and it is a sector that can be adversarial on the delivery side.

This makes it hard for the sector to have a unified voice. Action needs to be taken at an individual level to enact change. The people in construction are the brand. They are the face of the industry and have a major influence on how it is perceived.

Organisations should focus more on their staff, providing good training and development opportunities, clear career progression and quality internal communications. An engaged, positive workforce will tell people what a fantastic industry construction is, and they should be empowered to tell their stories.

The industry also needs to listen more, building better relationships with their audiences, e.g.:

  • Go into schools and talk about career opportunities. Hear about their perceptions of the industry and challenge them
  • Consult with communities and partners in a transparent way that welcomes and responds to feedback
  • Simplify messaging, moving from technical detail to understandable outcomes
  • Tell people about who we are and what inspires us to work in the built environment
  • Talk about the issues mentioned above and how they are being solved

In taking these kind of actions the industry has the opportunity to make long-term changes to people’s perceptions and attract those much needed recruits. Construction is a great industry – we just need to show it.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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