Put the focus on professionalism so construction can take wing
Public confidence in construction is key and there’s a lot the sector can learn from the aviation industry, says Chris Blythe.
On any big construction site the number of people on site who are on the payroll of the big name on the door probably represents no more that 10%, if that. There could be up to 20 different payrolls working on the site: a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view.
In the professional end of our industry, more and more people are giving up the wage-slave existence and taking the opportunity to pick and choose the work they want to do, and who they want to do it with. It might not always pay the top rate, but what is money when you are working in a manner at odds with your personal values?
This disconnect between how people want to behave and what happens when all the corporate stuff takes over is at the heart of the culture issues referred to by the Hackitt report and must surely be the reason why Dr Barbara Lane, one of the Grenfell inquiry’s expert witnesses, said that “any construction professional” would have known this was not right.
What is a construction professional? Does the Lane observation include anyone who earns a living from the industry or is it restricted to having a string of letters after your name – or is it determined by how you behave?
I recently had the pleasure of doing a skills test on an airline pilot to renew his rating to fly a single-engine aircraft. He has a licence but no letters after the name. His approach to the test was testament to the culture and professionalism in the industry. The culture is what drives the right behaviours.
Construction professionals should need to demonstrate that they too have specific competencies in critical areas and not just assume the “licence” they got 20 years ago covers everything. Clocking up CPD hours and gaming the CPD system to follow the rules is not right and paradoxically it is unprofessional as well.
There are, though, similarities between construction and aviation. The aviation industry is very fragmented. It is full of subcontractors – from pilots to baggage handlers to cabin crew to ground staff – in many different locations, working in an extremely dynamic environment.
While construction has made great strides with worker safety, there is, as Grenfell shows, some way to go when it comes to systemic safety. For aviation, safety is what gives the public confidence and that attention to safety makes it the safest form of transport in the world.
There is cost-cutting and some of it seems tedious, but the issue of whether you get a free sandwich is not a safety issue. As the equipment becomes more sophisticated, so does the need for constant updating. Hackitt is asking the same questions. If you want to design, build and operate high-risk buildings, why shouldn’t you demonstrate you are competent to do so?
Perhaps another quality required of the professional is humility as well.
This column is dedicated to 90-year-old regular Construction Manager reader Ralph Chapman