How the construction industry prepares for the future

I’ve seen a whisky boom, an oil rush and a raid across the borders in my 40 year career in Scottish construction. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that I’ve seen it all. 

 

I was a clever working class boy who won a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at RGU Aberdeen, just the sort of kid that we still should be trying to get into the business today.

Truth be told, I was not sure that university was for me and when in 1975, aged 19, I was offered a job as a trainee quantity surveyor at Alexander Hall, a family firm, I took it.

That company later became Hall & Tawse, and later still was bought by Mansell, the Scottish construction firm that ended up as part of Balfour Beatty in 2003.

My starting salary was £1,301 – not exactly life changing. My first ever site visit was to air traffic control in Aberdeen. Health and safety would be horrified to hear there were no hard hats nor safety boots.

I could see there was potential in this industry for ambitious types like me. Business was booming.  This was in the days when councils still built houses, and we were putting up lots of multi-storey flats.

Even before the discovery of oil in the North Sea, Scottish construction was thriving, building bonded warehouses for the whisky industry, which employed more than 23,000 people directly in the 1970s.

Then the oil boom hit Aberdeen in September 1979, triggering another construction frenzy. 

All of a sudden Aberdeen was flooded with Yanks – high rollers. We were busy busy, building all the sort of stuff you would get in a frontier-style town.

Office blocks and hotels went up for the oil industry executives and workers, followed by a boom in pubs, nightclubs and restaurants. Within 10 years of starting in the industry, I was project surveyor on large Aberdeen office developments that would easily be worth £50 million in today’s money. 

At 29, I was the project manager on the Bon Accord shopping centre  – building the city’s first modern shopping centre. 

During the eighties I also participated in what I called our raid over the borders. We were working on office developments at Stockton-on-Tees, at the former steel works site which was one of the country’s first ever Enterprise Zones. 

When Michael Heseltine, then the Secretary of State for the Environment, came to “top out” the site, we had a Scottish flag and piper there to greet him. We wanted him to know it was a Scottish job.

One of my fondest memories was building a hospitality suite at Ibrox Stadium, although I was a life-long Celtic fan. I also project managed work at RAF Lossiemouth for many years, constructing hangars for the Eurofighter Typhoons that are based there to protect UK airspace.

Things were very different in the old days. Directors were always Mister...they were never called by their first name.  Also, the boardroom lunches were something to be seen. There was wine, whisky, cigars – that’s just how business was done. 

The industry was full of larger-than-life characters. The first quantity surveyor who mentored me was an older gentleman, about 60, called Lindsay Young. When I had to get his coffee, he would rustle up his loose change and press it in my hand, along with his glass eye. 

Construction now suffers from a deep skills crisis and increasingly has had to rely on foreign workers. It would now be impossible to complete a large-scale infrastructure project without bringing in overseas workers, many from Eastern Europe.

It’s hard to attract people into the trades in our industry now. Perhaps it’s for the same reason we don’t have a good football team. The kids don’t want to do physical work. They’re happier to sit behind a computer

Schools also are pushing computing and coding skills, and they don’t talk to children about bricklaying, or plumbing or being an electrician, which is a shame as there are still lots of good jobs around for people with those skills.

At Balfour Beatty we have been working hard to reverse misperceptions of the industry. Kids need to be inspired and encouraged, so we give them work experience and talk to local school pupils to generate their interest.

My view is that you have to recruit for attitude and train for skills. Construction is still a people business and team spirit is still vitally important.

This industry can provide a good career, and lots of interesting work, for those prepared to work hard. 

I really think that technology will drive change in the construction sector in the next decade. At present we are just not innovative enough – we’re still building walls on sites! 

There will certainly be more modular building and off-site assembly, as well as better design solutions as software becomes more intuitive. Modular building  - we don’t say prefabs - will reduce costs and improve safety on site, it will also help us to build at volume.

Looking forward, the construction industry needs to think closely about its workforce. Young people leaving colleges now will have to work until they are 70, which will not be easy in such a physical job. Businesses will have to better appreciate the value of experience and knowledge, while still leaving room for young people to start their careers. 

Firms will need to provide more flexible working, for parents and for older staff too. 

I survived the peaks and troughs of construction cycles over recent years, but I knew many people who did not. There has never been a better time to resolve the problem of the cyclical workforce that every few years casts people out of work.

The public sector has a real role here to help smooth out the cycles by planning its own work flow better. The public sector should be bringing work forward in a downturn and they would get better  value for the public purse if they did so.

Public projects should be being fast-tracked right now, while oil prices are at near historic lows. That could make all the difference in a city like Aberdeen.

Cancelled and delayed infrastructure projects are costing Scotland’s economy nearly £8m a day, according to some industry figures.

The new Queensferry Crossing across the Firth of Forth, which opens next year has been a huge boon to Scots construction, I worry that there is not a sufficient pipeline of infrastructure work coming behind it. Many construction workers will move south to begin working on HS2 when this £1.4 billion project completes. 

But some will not be able to be so flexible and that will cause hardship, all for want of better planning.

 

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