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Skills, wellbeing and social impact: Highlights of day two at UK Construction Week 2021

In person events are back, so this week a couple of the Refresh team travelled down to Birmingham for the day to check out UK Construction Week. In classic fashion, it involved two delayed trains and terrible WIFI connection throughout, but a work trip wouldn’t be the same without it, would it? The seminar programme on the day was great, so we wanted to share some key highlights from the sessions we got to over the course of the day.

1. Wellbeing takes centre stage

This year, we were pleasantly surprised to see wellbeing really taking centre stage, with many seminars revolving around this area. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering workplace mental health and wellbeing have really come to the fore over the past year, but in general, it’s not something that’s usually top of the list for the built environment sector. Much needed though, and we applaud the change regardless.

Stats on the day from employee engagement platform, WorkL, told us that 30% of construction sector employees are a ‘flight risk’ at the moment (meaning they’re very likely to leave their role in the next 9 months or less). This figure from September 2021 is up from 16% in March 2021 – so more employees are looking to move right now, a stat that firms operating in the sector shouldn’t be ignoring. These stats may be down to the fact that almost a third of people working in construction have a ‘wellbeing risk’ – meaning they’re at high risk of poor wellbeing due to workplace issues. We found the platform and the data it provides really interesting - to see how your company ranks on the happiness / wellbeing scale, visit here.

We were also impressed to hear about a relatively new podcast (The MYHP) started by Mancunian bricklayer, Robert Muldoon, after going through his own mental health journey in 2018. The podcast is for anyone working in any area of the construction sector to find information and real-life stories around mental health, so people know they’re not alone. Good on you, Robert.

And last but not least, a mention for the amazing work being done in this field by Lighthouse Club, most notably through its long-standing 24-hour industry helpline that looks to support built environment professionals struggling with their mental health, and its recent ‘Help Inside the Hard Hat’ campaign, which aims to raise awareness of poor mental health within the sector. If you’re a construction sector employer and serious about these issues, we’d strongly recommend checking out the campaign and downloading some of the eye-catching assets to use in your workplace.    

2. Skills

With the entire construction sector losing momentum over the past few weeks as a result of labour and materials shortages, how could skills not be at the forefront of the conversation?

Discussing why roles in construction aren’t more desirable to people leaving school, one panellist claimed that the sector has an ‘image problem’, stating that we need to make it a ‘proper career choice’ for people coming out of school. She cited her experience as a cover teacher years ago where she was given a set of ‘naughty boys’ that they’d dumped in a construction class because they ‘wouldn’t get any GCSEs’. It’s these perceptions of roles in construction being dirty and unskilled that need to change, particularly when you consider that evolutions in technology are going to mean that we now need more people from different backgrounds and skill-sets to be considering a role in the sector.  

While there were lots of productive and interesting discussions going on around how we make the sector appeal to those leaving school or college, we felt that perhaps something was being missed when it comes to career switchers and people potentially entering the industry from others, equipped with transferrable skills. A panellist briefly mentioned how offsite factories would need gamers and people with technological minds to manage the introduction of new technologies such as AI into processes, but we felt more could have been made around how the sector could actively encourage people to switch careers and bring in transferrable skills and new ways of thinking.

We also heard some great points around how offsite construction can open up the construction talent pool more widely, predominantly due to the opportunity it provides for more flexible working options. The fact that the nature of offsite opens up roles in construction without having to drive hundreds of miles per week to site, means more opportunities are there for mums/parents, for example. Not to mention the fact that the safer and more controlled conditions of a factory naturally mean that roles are opened up to a more diverse range of people – whether that’s women, people living with a disability, or even those that simply can’t drive. Ultimately, roles in offsite offer people a real opportunity to ‘level up’ as the nature of it means employees learn lots of different (often transferrable) skills.

3. The social impact of offsite

Staying on the offsite theme, we sat on a great panel around the social impact of offsite construction.  Aside from the skills, inclusion and diversity benefits of roles in offsite discussed previously, the panel also debated the other benefits it can bring, including more considered and generally ‘better’ housing. A massive £1.4bn is spent by the NHS per year on housing related ill health, with offsite construction actually providing an opportunity to help with this by building better / more insulated housing, for example, which would in turn lower fuel poverty and related ailments.

It was also great to hear some case studies of offsite’s social impact in practice – including one L&G project in Bristol that was able to create a 4.5% biodiversity net gain as a result of using offsite methods. And another of a man that had been a serial offender but has now turned his life around and is in a managerial role in offsite.

Measuring the value of the social impact of offsite was widely discussed and considered. Tips from panellists here included asking firms – whether that’s developers, planners, contractors, or others - to consider their impact intentions from the beginning of the project. They recommended being really clear on what needs to be achieved from an impact perspective from the outset, rather than waiting until mid-project to consider. Also, firms should be really clear on their impact statements before making them. For example, if a construction firm says it intends to create xx new jobs, what do they actually mean by this? Do they mean brand new jobs created specifically for certain demographics and minority groups, for example, or ones they already have and need to fill? The difference between the two is important and firms need to be transparent here.

Wrapping up, there was a real feeling that the industry is at a real tipping point when it comes to the social impact of offsite. With this comes a real danger that lots of the great work that is being done here could be value engineered out in time, as well as the possibility that small companies doing great things could be bought out by large companies and stifled. There was the general feeling that there is a real opportunity for local authorities to lead on social impact / offsite – so buck up your ideas, LAs!

A sign of progress?

Our day at UK Construction Week gave us lots of hope for the sector moving forward. Not only was it brilliant to be able to get out and network with peers and industry experts (never underestimate the value of face-to-face conversations!), but we also really enjoyed hearing about the myriad of progressive innovations, collaborations and new ways of thinking coming out of the sector. Of course, there’s always work to be done, so we’re looking forward to attending in a year’s time and seeing how all of these conversations have progressed.

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