Leaders' Lunch - "A human-resources challenge for the construction industry" (JEP- 17 November 2021)

IoD Jersey’s annual Leaders’ Lunch is taking place on November 25th. It is an opportunity for former, current, and future leaders of our Island, to help inform the debate ahead of next year’s elections.

All industry sectors are encouraged to get involved as we attempt to re-set following the pandemic and Brexit. Prior to the lunch, IoD Jersey is speaking to a range of industry experts to get their thoughts on the way ahead with constructive and actionable suggestions.

This week, it’s the turn of the construction industry. We spoke to three leading organisations within the sector. Ian Bashforth is a Director of T & G, structural engineering consultants. Phil Horsley is the Managing Director of Geomarine, geotechnical and civil engineers, and Bob Matthews, CEO of ROK Group, a local construction firm who are contractors for projects ranging from £1million to Jersey’s new hospital project.

Q: There is a lot of publicity about rising prices for construction materials, is that the main issue impacting the construction industry right now?

Phil: Material resources are currently an issue, I believe it will be short term, and will solve itself because the market will take over. It’s the human resource issues that aren’t just going to magically get sorted.

Bob: We need to separate out the white-collar workers such as engineers, from the blue-collar workers such as carpenters, plasterers and other trade operatives. These manual operatives are some of those who have either gone back to Eastern Europe or Madeira. The reasons for that are: Covid, or because their home markets have picked up, and because it’s just not viable to live in Jersey anymore due to the cost of housing and living. Then you have the issue that travelling and working in Jersey has been made a lot more difficult in terms of immigration with Brexit.

Ian: Since the 2008 financial crisis, we’ve seen a lot more school leavers and graduates considering engineering. We are growing organically that way and that’s a success story.

Bob: We’re having discussions about bringing in workers from outside Europe, but the issue is attracting people. You have to identify who they are, then they have to apply for a licence, for example in Madeira that would mean going to Lisbon to obtain a permit. Then they get here, where are they going to live? Most smaller businesses just can’t do all that.

Phil: The wider construction industry has some people on relatively low wages, who can’t afford to live here, so we have an obligation as an industry to improve their prospects. We need to attract school leavers and then retain them. There should be incentives for apprenticeships. The industry has a lot of small one, two or three person businesses, and they’re not taking on apprentices and passing on skills. It costs them money and time, it’s not worth it for them.

Ian: The barriers to recruiting either locally or through immigration mean that many business owners have no incentive to grow, they make a comfortable living just doing the business themselves.

Q. How are you managing to combat this issue?

Bob: We’re looking at methods to reduce the human resource needs immediately. So, we have sourced prefabricated elements for buildings from the UK, such as completed bathroom pods , external wall panels and balconies, all supplied finishihed . This is a positive move because it reduces the construction period for the client, the quality control of these elements is far higher, the health and safety risks are such as working at heights, and productivity is increased.

Q: Is it simply a case of needing more workers?

Ian: Recruitment agency, GR8 has been assisting with sourcing workers off island for the industry. They should get credit for sticking their neck out and looking at recruiting worldwide, and not just for construction. The pinch point is accommodation. Once we’ve got them here, where are they going to be able to afford to live? The industry will need to work with Government to develop an acceptable solution.

Phil: If you said you were going to house 500 nurses, teachers and social workers in a block, there would be a public perception that this is a positive move. If you said let’s have 500 plasterers and block layers, there would be a different perception from the public. We have to sell the value of blue-collar workers better.

Ian: We need to get across the fact that construction has changed phenomenally. Just because you don’t work in an office doesn’t mean to say you’re not skilled.

Q. What are the answers?

Phil: To grow, a company needs to see a steady stream of work and have confidence in the long view. The data isn’t great to make decisions about investing in and growing your business. Resource levelling is complex in construction, coping with peaks and troughs is a challenge. Any work a large client can do to give visibility of their requirements, and their intended procurement strategies, to the supply chain is of immense value and will benefit all parties.

Bob: The peaks and troughs are painful for us. For example, the Jersey Gas development site was refused planning over what we believe was a very poor case on archaeology concerns. We would have taken care of that like many large cities do if archaeology is found. Gearing up the resources for a project and then having the plug pulled is painful to us and the Island resources. How do we expect our island resources to grow and invest with a market that is so volatile?

Ian: Many of the infrastructure projects are to make Jersey a better place. The Government writes the Island’s Strategic plan, the professional planners make decisions based on that plan, and then the Planning committee refuses to give it the go ahead. Wouldn’t you take the recommendation of your professional planners working in accordance with the Island plan? Planning is the bottleneck.

Bob: What it needs for these large projects is for someone with the authority to lead on them, someone strong enough to deal with the planners and create a steady work stream. Someone with the right experience.

Ultimately, we have to look at what is good for Jersey. These are key projects that are fundamental to the Island and delivery on public projects is far from ideal. That is definitely something which needs Government to deal with, as too is the accommodation issue. As an industry, we have to work with more third-parties to help us find people off-island, and we have to make the industry more attractive to local people.

IoD Jersey’s Leaders’ Lunch is sponsored by HSBC, and takes place on Thursday 25th November at the Royal Yacht Hotel & Spa. Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite. Further information on the IoDJersey website: https://www.IoD.je/news-and-events/events

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