Guest blog: The image of construction

This month’s guest blog is provided by Paul Wilkinson, a construction PR and marketing specialist since 1987. He is an advocate of the application of social media in the AEC sector, and an authority on SaaS-based construction collaboration technologies.

Paul Wilkinson: writer, speaker, blogger
Paul Wilkinson: writer, speaker and prolific blogger

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Build UK (formed by the merger of the UK Contractors Group and the National Specialist Contractors Council) launched this week with a five-point action plan for the UK construction industry addressing:

  • the image of construction
  • industry’s skills needs
  • effective pre-qualification
  • health and safety performance, and
  • fair payment practices.

Little surprise that “The image of construction” tops the list. It also featured prominently in the joint government-industry strategy, Construction 2025, compiled by the current chief construction adviser Peter Hansford in July 2013, and its four-fold ambitions to cut costs, speed up project delivery, cut carbon emissions and improve the industry’s export opportunities have featured in countless presentations. Construction 2025 devotes a whole section to improving the sector’s image. Hansford said “fundamental change is required in how the construction industry is perceived by the general public”, and “engaging young people and society at large” topped his list of areas where action is needed.

However, the sector’s inertia, innate conservatism and its often short-term view could hold it back. Too many organisations sit tight in their disciplinary silos, their leaders not recognising they are part of the problem.

Our industry is great – it just needs better PR. – I have been at conferences where contributors have spouted this kind of utter rubbish. Basically, construction gets the reputation it deserves. As any good PR professional would tell you: the industry’s reputation is the result of what it does, what it says and what others say about it. It can’t control the latter – it can only control what it does and what it says.

Yes, we have some landmark projects (the Shard, the 2012 London Olympic games infrastructure, Crossrail, etc) that are world-leading, but which are often overlooked in favour of ‘cowboy builder’ stories and other negativity. Popular perceptions of construction are often heavily influenced by negative experiences as consumers at the SME level. And these experiences are often a consequence of some of the other industry problems – poor skills, poor health and safety, a lack of diversity, procurement processes fixated on lowest price (not best value), and often antiquated and unfair payment practices.

Active in Constructing Excellence and as chair of the CIPR’s construction and property group (CAPSIG), I have argued at conferences and online (hereherehere and here, for example) that the industry needs to stop thinking of itself as a monolithic entity and start to identify changes it can make across its many disciplines, and then get them communicating, running long-term, integrated, pan-sector campaigns, and working collaboratively with partners, trade bodies and (most importantly, perhaps) its customers and end-users.

I was cautiously optimistic that the combined thrust of the chief construction adviser, the pan-industry Construction Leadership Council, Construction 2025, and the catalysts of BIM and other digital initiatives might improve matters, but sadly my hopes were dashed. In July the new Conservative government announced it no longer needed an adviser, it slimmed-down the CLC to a token group dominated by contractors, and the future of Vince Cable’s various industry strategies, including, presumably, Digital Built Britain, was called into question.

I do not think Build UK is – as it claims – “ideally positioned to promote collaboration and provide industry-wide solutions for the benefit of everyone” (for a start, the challenge is much, much wider, embracing industry professionals – via the CIC, maybe – customers and end-users, and suppliers and manufacturers, among other stakeholders). However, I take heart from its suggestion that “Agreeing and implementing best practice can drive a lasting culture shift that will improve productivity, deliver growth and make the industry fit for purpose.” If we can overcome the government’s apparent abdication of partnership, and ensure that best practice is accompanied by corresponding changes in attitudes and behaviours from SME workplaces right up to PLC boardrooms then we might have a chance of changing the reputation of the industry currently known as construction.