Image of Construction: Does UK Construction have the image it deserves?

The construction industry often bemoans its public perception. That “builder” is the only profession to routinely have the word “cowboy” attached to it is an affront to the thousands of capable, committed, talented people delivering complex building and engineering projects in the UK and around the World.

We are able to deliver Olympic facilities on time, produce the tunnels and stations for Crossrail, and build towering office blocks on postage stamp plots. However, when we go to parties our profession sits some way below the level of doctor, accountant, and lawyer in the social hierarchy, which hurts.

When you ask people what they think of builders, they will mention bare chests and bum cracks, bonfires and noisy machines, mud on the roads and congestion from big delivery lorries. They complain that builders are building too many houses in their village, running roughshod over community opinion and neighbourhood plans in a ruthless rush for profit.

When at a recent property sector event, I asked if anyone had ever recommended a career in construction to a younger member of their family. No one had, and no one thought they ever would. Painful as it may be, not even those close to us think the UK construction sector is a fit career destination for today’s talent.

The real question here is whether this perception is deserved, and of course, it is.

Landmark projects like Crossrail attract the very best talent, and have clients committed to using cutting edge technology, and treating staff and contractors properly. But most of the industry is conducted off the back of a flatbed truck, with little or no interest in innovation or training.

Even some large construction clients and cost consultants are more concerned with being on time than doing it well, or being cheaper rather than being effective. There is no real industry wide commitment to energy efficiency – the death of initiatives such as the Code for Sustainable Homes is in part due to the increases it produced in the cost of building. We still kill more of our workers every year than any other industry, and that statistic shows no sign of improving.

When we go in to planning consultations, or applications, there is, in the main, no genuine attempt to engage locals, or enter meaningful dialogue with council planners. In fact we are comfortable with the adversarial approach often ending at appeal as we are good at that, and, in the end, make more money through the constraint the process produces on the supply of homes.

Discrimination remains rife. On a recent site visit I witnessed a contractor ignoring a woman and her views, despite the fact she was in fact the client, preferring to talk to a male sub-contractor. When challenged on it, he said he wasn’t sexist “because he had daughters”. I know that client will justly not use that contractor again, but I also know that contractor will continue to offend. Is it any wonder that diversity in construction does not reflect that in the general population?

I went to a couple of events in the early years of the century focussed on Object Modelling – the forerunner of BIM. I stopped going when I could see that despite the obvious benefits of the technology, its adoption was not growing. BIM has been at about the same level of adoption for a decade, and still has little momentum.

These are generalised comments, but anyone who has worked on the ordinary, small projects that make up the bulk of construction activity will recognise them. Mark Farmer’s report last year challenged the industry to “modernise or die” for good reason.

Marketing can help here, but not in the way that many in the industry think. Marketing is not just convincing people that something is not what they think, especially when their existing perception is borne out in large parts of the product in question. Marketing is a holistic business philosophy – the anticipation of customer needs and wants and their profitable satisfaction.

Our customers want us to behave differently when delivering our product. In all these matters detailed above they need change. They want Crossrail style delivery on all projects, not just a few. Telling them that we’re amazing is not going to help, the industry must actually change, and be seen to change.

There’s an old joke. Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? A: Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change. The true role of marketing here is to be the industry’s psychologist, and persuade UK Construction Plc that it wants to change.

Ross Sturley is a CIMCIG Committee member and principle of construction-focused marketing consultancy Chart Lane