Gary Sullivan: Construction crisis, what crisis?
While there may be talk of an industry in crisis, construction is at the heart of our national infrastructure - even if it is resistant to change, says Gary Sullivan.
Those of you who are over 50 and who have owned a car will know the delights of cannibalising cars in the breaker’s (scrap) yard at weekends to find a starter motor or carburettor for your Cortina – we all had a few mates that were mechanics to help us fix our pride and joy.
Today there are no mechanics; there are fitters. And today we have fitters who use computers to diagnose and order new parts that are delivered and fitted the same day. There are no TV repair folk any more. TVs are scrapped and a new one ordered and delivered, and your phone will tell you what day and what time it will arrive. That is change.
I could go on, but you get the point. Unless you are 30 or under, in which case you think ordering parts online and same day delivery is, well, normal.
BIM and quill pens
The truth is that other than in safety, which became a necessity, construction hasn’t moved on that much in the last 30 years. Yes we have BIM, but still contracts are written by folk with quill pens, buildings are designed by the bourgeois and built by the proletariat – at least that’s what Marx would have us believe, although it does sometimes feels that way. The hierarchy in construction is legendary and makes the armed forces look like a flat management structure (maybe).
We have backfilled our talent gap with very skilled folk from around the world, although some of them may feel more at home in a Marx-like environment. We underinvest in talent, we stifle innovation, we encourage conflict and pass on risk to those least equipped to manage – and yet those of us that stay still love it.
For all its faults, the construction industry still contributes significantly to our critical national infrastructure – with engineering feats such as Crossrail and the Queensferry Crossing – or “Kevin” as it known locally.
The industry shapes our skylines and builds workplaces such as Canary Wharf and many fantastic buildings in the City of London. It creates centres of learning like the Alan Turing building at the University of Manchester, and it is at the heart of regeneration with projects like the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. It is hardly failing.
Necessity will bring change
I joined this industry 30 years ago at the birth of construction management (CM) – a change that has not yet been fully adapted to. Some may say that the construction industry has been hijacked by global organisations feeding hungry shareholders, some might say that CM brought much-needed change to an ailing industry: your opinion will depend on whether you are romantic or pragmatic.
So, how do we solve this “crisis”? It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and when it is necessary the construction industry will change. Yes, we need visionaries to start that change now but, as I have already said, the industry’s relationship with risk is immature: risk is used as a noun more than as a verb.
At all levels the industry is encouraged to abrogate its responsibilities rather than own them. When it can no longer do that, it will change and not before.
Of course, the other great agent of change may play its part too; when it no longer makes money the way it does currently, that will be a true crisis. Then we may see some change. Maybe that day will be upon us soon.
Gary Sullivan OBE is chairman of construction logistics contractor Wilson James