From the army to construction… and back again
The armed services and construction are coming closer together, through a new campaign to encourage recruitment from the forces and a call for industry reservists. Both sides stand to benefit, Elaine Knutt reports, while Gary Sullivan is on site in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
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Construction and the armed forces have a long-standing alliance: in the Second World War, parts of Laing, Taylor Woodrow and Wimpey even became divisions of the War Office when staff formed uniformed companies deployed to repair bomb damaged buildings. In today’s industry, synergies between construction and the military can be seen in senior individuals’ CVs. Andrew Wolstenholme and Robbie Burns of Crossrail, and Peter Fisher of Costain, for example, have all risen to the top in construction on a foundation of skills built up in the army.
The transition is made easier by cultural similarities: both the industry and the military have clear hierarchies and chains of command; both rely on careful planning behind the scenes then boots on the ground. So it’s not surprising that a significant minority of construction staff once served in uniform: research by Morgan Sindall suggests that 10% of employees either have direct or family connection to the military. At Vinci, 50 out of its 3,000-strong management team were in the services, while Carillion has 400 ex-regulars in its 25,000 staff.
But now two new initiatives could bring construction and the armed forces even closer together. As the military makes serving soldiers, sailors and aircrew redundant in response to government cuts — adding to the normal annual demob rate of 20,000 a year — there’s a move to encourage a wider range of construction employers to take advantage of the talent released. The initiative is backed by CITB, which is preparing marketing material to send to 26,000 levy-paying companies, as well as service leavers themselves.
No one’s quoting any targets, but the clear aspiration is to shift the numbers of military personnel employed in construction upward. “Service people are highly committed, determined and reliable, they’re used to working in challenging conditions and with challenging deadlines. The message is ‘if you’re recruiting, you might want to think about recruiting from the military’, as part of a total package including apprentices, graduates and people who already have careers in construction,” says Andy Walder, director of the National Construction College.
As the regular army, navy and air force shrink, there’s due to be a corresponding increase in the reserves and the frequency of their deployment. The MOD is therefore looking to employers to move from tacit approval of TA membership among staff to active support — the incentive being the benefit they can receive from the MOD’s increased training investment in reservists. It’s a call that Carillion has answered with plans to identify individuals who can serve both Queen and Carillion (see box page 20).
Military work ethic
Large contractors such as Lend Lease, Morgan Sindall and Costain are already active services recruiters, targeting ex-Royal Engineers in particular, but also other divisions such as the Royal Logistics Corps. The new entrants might be officers leaving with 20 years’ service or tradesmen who served shorter terms: the underlying work ethic instilled by the military is likely to be the same. But the current initiative, linking employers to the services and funding offered by the MOD’s Career Transition Partnership (CTP) resettlement service, is about broadening access to the military talent pool to all construction employers.
“The larger construction companies often have an ex-Royal Engineer in the senior management team, who can use old links to support others to come on board. But an SME might be aware that they could do with someone with a logistics background, but how do they get hold of that person?’ says Rebecca Lovelace of Circle Three, the consultancy project managing the new initiative.
It’s an “initiative” without a name, originating last summer when Ernst & Young partner Malcolm Bairstow made the link between enforced shrinkage in the armed forces and construction’s need for capable staff. Bairstow discussed ideas with Gary Sullivan, a high-profile ex-army figure in the industry who runs logistics and support contractor Wilson James. Together, they linked up industry directors and senior officers, forming a working group that now meets regularly to discuss mutual collaboration. CITB came on board to disseminate the message to the industry at large, and Circle Three is project manager.
“There were lots of individual contacts between employers and regiments or personal contacts, but no joined up thinking. We want to promote the value of recruiting from the military, and give employers more information about the kind of people leaving the military, and their skillsets, so everyone has the option to consider it,” says Walder. “Whatever their experience in the military, it will be in a different context and they may not be able to deliver from day one, but the value they bring longer term will counterbalance that.”
As the army reduces its numbers, construction could gain
The initiative covers all the armed services, explains working group member and Morgan Sindall defence director Andy Parker, a former project manager in the RAF. “We’re recruiting high-calibre individuals that already come with great skills, then it’s easy to equip them with our own company skills. Any soldier, sailor or airman who’s had leadership and management training fits the bill – even if they don’t have the specific skill set of the Royal Engineers.” And Parker isn’t only recruiting operational staff: Morgan Sindall has used the CTP to source an office manager and IT apprentices.
The CTP works with all service leavers before their leaving date and up to two years afterwards, advising on employment or setting up in business. For employers, its jobs website allows firms to post vacancies free of charge, and in some cases it can fund construction-related training courses. The working group also hopes that members will offer “taster” work placements to service leavers considering the industry, which can be brokered via the CTP.
Some contractors in the working group had already forged links with the military, through personal or contractual relationships, and Lovelace says that establishing personal contacts that allow bespoke projects could be a feature of the “initiative”. For instance, in 2011 Lend Lease senior commercial manager Angela Forbes persuaded the company’s board to establish contacts in the army to identify candidates for mentoring and work placements – a policy that brought Oliver Turner on board (see below).
Since the working group broadened its military contacts, Lend Lease has also taken part in a Tank Regiment careers day, and Forbes is arranging work placements for 10 of its members in construction trades. “We can’t employ thousands, but we can certainly mentor and offer placements. And where we couldn’t employ directly, we could ask our supply chain to take on recruits,” says Forbes.
While the group is keen to communicate the breadth of construction-related skills represented in the army — from plasterers to plant fitters — there’s a consensus that the armed forces could help fill a specific skills gap at site supervisor level. “With the advent of construction management, the industry has lost leadership skills for general foremen and site managers,” says Gary Sullivan. “The industry needs leadership at a senior level, but we haven’t got as many ‘sergeant majors’ on the ground as we should have. I’m a great advocate of BIM, but ultimately when we build something it requires people on site with tools.”
The answer could lie in the army’s non-commissioned officers (NCOs) — soldiers who join as privates (or sappers in the Royal Engineers) before being promoted up the ranks. Vinci’s HR director Colin Jellicoe agrees: “One of the big positives for us is there are skills shortages in construction, in terms of the direct supervision of labour and the management of labour. It’s an expertise services personnel have — they have team building and communication skills that far outstrip what the private sector can offer. It’s a skill base we’re interested in harnessing, whether that’s from the rehab programme, or from the regulars.”
At Lend Lease, Forbes describes a similar strategy. “When we meet other regiments we plan to focus in on the late 20s, early 30s site supervisor level — we’ve also got buy-in from a lot of our supply chain if we can find suitable people. They would need to have some background [in the relevant trade] but transferable skills are an essential part of the role — things like thinking on your feet, communicating with other trades.”
For companies recruiting from the armed forces, the motivation seems to be more commercial than corporate social responsibility (CSR). Vinci’s Jellicoe rejects the suggestion that it’s the “right” thing to do. “It’s more mercenary than that — there’s a skill base there, and a shortage in our industry. The numbers of people leaving the industry year-on-year, and average ages, are both going in the wrong direction.
“We’ll also have a slip in the number of new entrants coming into the industry, and have to make sure we deliver on future projects. So a level of diversity is key to maintaining profitable and successful business.”
At Morgan Sindall, Andy Parker agrees: “Our vision is to be the best in the industry, and to do that by recruiting the best person. If the armed forces candidate is the best person, they’ll be recruited every time. But if we say we’re recruiting because ‘we want to do our bit’, then maybe we’re recruiting people who’re not as good as civilian counterparts. It becomes a bit crass, and could devalue what we’re doing a little bit.”
But at Lend Lease, Angela Forbes does see engaging with the armed forces as a CSR issue, albeit one pitched at a geopolitical level. Her argument is that the armed forces make the world safer for everyone else to do business in, so the businesses owe it a debt. “Lend Lease has a global presence, and the army has historically been involved in some of the markets we work in. We need to give something back — it’s a moral obligation.”
In the Second World War civilian construction teams switched seamlessly to army roles, revealing similarities in hierarchies that still exist today: managers became officers, site foremen were NCOs, tradesmen were private soldiers. As Gary Sullivan points out, the army’s division into commissioned officers and NCOs parallels construction. “Your graduate package managers would be the army’s lieutenants and captains, while the project managers and project directors are the majors and colonels. There are these similarities, even though construction doesn’t have the badges, so soldiers tend to fit in.”
Sullivan identifies several other similarities: between army kit and construction PPE; army vehicles and construction plant; the army’s typical two-year postings and the project-driven nature of construction. Finally, he offers an analogy in terms of how both are perceived. “Both military and construction turn up in someone’s backyard, there’s some disquiet from the stakeholders, then they generally succeed in making things better than they were, then everyone forgets and is ungrateful!”
That said, everyone also points to the cultural differences. SME could be understood as “Subject Matter Expert”, a case study in construction would be a vignette in army-speak, and an organisation chart would be an “orbat”. The term “green” also has a different meaning — it describes army-only operations.
It’s possible to overstate the similarities, as life in construction is clearly different from life in uniform: there are more choices, different pressures, different expectations. But the similarities do mean that individuals leaving the services can find that the transition works out happily, as Emily Rainsley would agree. The Morgan Sindall graduate trainee joined after a shoulder injury cut short her officer training at Sandhurst (see below).
“When people leave, they leave their social life as well as their work life, it’s a big part of you. But in the military, you’re also used to making a new start and moving forward. Going back to the regulars might be possible, but I don’t think I would — with the career I’ve got and the roots I’ve put down.”
From army to construction…
Oliver Turner, construction manager, Lend Lease
After school I worked in construction and enjoyed it, but I wanted to get on and get a skill. When I heard about the Royal Engineers, I thought it would be good to get army training and a trade at the same time.
In the army I did an NVQ 3 in Carpentry and Joinery, and went on construction tours in Cyprus and Canada. I also did combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combat engineering is more about the means to an end, fortifications and defences. It was a good contrast. I was promoted to staff sergeant so I was looking after guys and setting them to work.
I joined Lend Lease in January 2012. I enjoy the role the more I do it. Last September I started the first year of a five-year BSc Construction Management programme at London Southbank University, so in due course I’ll be ICIOB.
A lot of people who join the forces at a young age don’t have a lot of experience of how to find a job or the working environment, it’s all a big unknown. So through the work the group is doing with the CTP, we’re trying to get people into jobs and tell them about construction, and I’m trying to help where I can.
From army to construction…
Emily Rainsley, graduate trainee, Morgan Sindall
I went to a careers fair when I was doing GCSEs and found out about the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme, which sponsors people to do degrees in engineering or construction management before going into the army. I entered Sandhurst in 2010, but unfortunately when I was there I had a bad shoulder injury. But at 23, they said I was young enough to pursue a civilian career, with the option of returning to the army before I was 25.
In the military you build up a work ethic that’s valuable in the commercial workplace. Even the basic recruits are ingrained with the importance of turning up on time, being in the right place with the right equipment. And working 7.30 to 5.30 or outside — you wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
Construction doesn’t put you in the life or death territory where I thought my career would be, but health and safety is still a priority. In the army, you are very cautious and safety minded because the risks are so great. In both, you’ve got to look after yourself so you can do your job properly.
I’ve got a responsible head on my shoulders. The military attracts a certain type of person, but then it brings out certain aspects and polishes them. If I’d completed my training I’d have been responsible for a troop of 30, so everything has prepared me for taking responsibility.
Morgan Sindall has a wide breadth of work, and I’d really like to stay with them. I’m also interested in the design to site side of things, programme planning and design coordination.
Now that I’ve left the military behind, I’ve still taken a lot of it with me. I’d probably look at returning to the TA side rather than the regulars, with the career I’ve got now.