Home Features Years of decline has its effect on construction

‘Construction has had three years of poor trade with more to come. After three years of poor trading, big chunks of construction are running on ‘empty’ and the petrol station is getting further and further away.’

If those words look familiar it is because they appeared on this very page in January 2012. That year of promise, with the London Olympics due to happen, Facebook planning to float publicly and consequently being valued at $100billion and, of course as it turned out, a London club won the UEFA Champions League. And doom and gloom flowed through our sector.

So what has changed? Well, surely now we must be glimpsing at least the very tips of the green shoots of recovery somewhere on the far horizon, and indeed there has been some more optimism in forecasts and members’ anecdotes of late, albeit laced liberally with caution. After all, we’ve seen enough false dawns in the past, haven’t we?

Construction activity reported for Q1 of 2013 suggests that sectors such as infrastructure and commercial are still struggling, with the latter showing new orders are less than half of what they were at the peak in 2006. Private housing orders, however, increased significantly year-on-year, buoyed by government initiatives, and whilst opinion may vary as to whether this constitutes an artificial peak of sorts, the fact remains that this presents business opportunities for FPDC members.

So let’s take the bold step of assuming that things are just set to improve, just to keep ourselves cheery in the absence of proper summer weather. How well equipped are we as a sector to cope with an upturn when it does come?

A recent survey of site dry and wet trade operatives in the interiors sector has been conducted as part of an interiors training review (see page 27). Led by FPDC in partnership with AIS and NAS, the review aims to examine and explore training needs in the sector.

The initial results confirm that there are low numbers of new entrants coming into the sector and that a number are due to retire. It also suggests that the sector would benefit from more trained supervisors.

The proportion of operatives with qualifications in management and supervision is very low (less than one per cent), while more than one in 10 said they would find this type of training useful for their careers. Surely businesses would also benefit?

We are bound to have some difficulties with labour levels; this is a perennial issue in our business and always highlighted even more as we climb tentatively out of recession periods (which we are depressingly used to). If we are serious about being taken seriously we must NOW be acting to qualify, ‘badge’ and upskill operatives so that our workforce is ready when the demand hits. The alternative is to fill the gaps with semi-skilled labour and muddle through, not a course of action likely to get us viewed as masters of our craft.

If we manage this feat, there are risks attached: there is a possibility that we will invest time training people who subsequently leave our business, perhaps even the sector as a whole, maybe even the country. There is a chance that the remaining workers will want improved pay and conditions (more than a chance, in fact!). We might even need to change some of our working practices to cope with the new challenges an upturn in business will bring, with pre-fabrication, BIM, enhanced environmental demands and the continuing need for health & safety improvement – to name but a few.

Critically however, like all the best plans of action, a plan has to come before the action. Effective business managers are preparing their organisations NOW for the rigours of increased workloads and the associated demands it will bring, just as they prepared in advance of the downturn as soon as they smelt it on the wind, and steered their course through the choppy waters of recession that little more steadily as a result.

They say standing still in business is like going backwards; never has this been more true. Technology is forever increasing the rate of change and of course client demands never get easier, they only expect more and more.

When will you hold that management meeting that says “let’s prepare for the good times”? When will you broach the subject of the faint possibility that this time next year we might actually be making some steady progress again rather than treading water?

We might well suggest the time for such thinking is sooner than you imagine.

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