Flexible working is common in many sectors, but not in construction where unsociable hours and extended periods spent away from home are the norm. Nevertheless, when Ricki Prett was asked to pilot a flexible working scheme he had both professional and personal reasons to rise to the challenge.
Prett works for the Costain-Skanska joint venture as Sector 1 lead senior general foreman on the HS2 enabling works at Euston – principally demolition at this stage – and he’s responsible for more than 80 staff.
Although recruiting experienced staff is not difficult at the moment, it is likely to become so as major projects such as Crossrail 2, Hinkley Point C and Thames Tideway get into their stride. Prett predicts that flexible working will then become a key factor.
“It will be a struggle to get the right people and flexible working is something you really want to hear at a job interview,” he says.Prett knows this from personal experience.
“Two of my kids have broken homes because of my working hours – coming home every other weekend, working 12 hours, seven days a week and living in digs,” he says. “There was no flexibility. In the past if you told your works manager you needed any flexibility it would be frowned upon.”
For the pilot scheme at Euston, Prett chose a group of eight engineers and four general foremen to show that there would be no loss in speed or productivity. Each had a timesheet on which to record what they had done in the half-day of flexible working that they were allocated every two weeks.
“The timesheets show what they did and what the benefit to the company was, so it could be doing an online course like our in-house ‘unconscious bias’ course or evidencing an NVQ in crane supervision,” he says. “I can tell them online how many units I want completed by the end of the day, and then I can see it – there’s always proof.”
The arrangement means that staff can fit in medical appointments without having to take a day off, as they would have done before, and take time out to be with their family doing things that many people outside the industry take for granted.
“One guy had never been to a school play before,” Prett says. “All I ask is that he picks up the phone and answers emails, so we know he’s working.”
The experiment has proved successful on every measure – even absenteeism through sickness has decreased – so now it has been rolled out across Prett’s whole team and, he says, there has been interest from other contractors.
“I’ve had conversations with people from contractors like Kier, Graham and Balfour Beatty asking how it works and my answer is that every project will be different but it is possible,” he concludes.
A personal reward for Prett is that he was awarded the 2018 FIR (Fairness, Inclusion and Respect) Inspiration Award set up by the CECA after he was nominated by a colleague for challenging industry norms. The judges felt that he was championing change and demonstrated that one person could make a difference to working practices.
Imminent Brexit tightens pressure on labour supply
The importance of recruitment, training and retention will be critical to the future of the UK construction industry as Brexit is enacted according to research from the Home Builders Federation (HBF), the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) and Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).
The HBF is concerned not only that nearly 20% of workers on house-building sites across the country are ‘non-UK’ but that this is not spread evenly across the UK but concentrated in London, where more than half of the onsite workforce is from overseas. This effect is diluted the further from London the site is, so the corresponding figures are more than 20% in the South East, less than 20% in the East and less than 2% in the North East.
Surveys of the workforce also show how it is ageing, with more than a fifth of British workers – that is those with UK passports – aged over 50. By contrast, most of the EU workers – around 70% – are in the 20-39 age group.
The concerns raised by the HBF are mirrored by the FMB. Its director of external affairs, Sarah McMonagle says: “EU net migration is at its lowest level since 2012 and this is deeply worrying for industries like construction that rely on workers from the EU. We can’t afford to lose any more EU workers as currently two-thirds of construction SMEs are struggling to hire bricklayers and 60% are struggling to hire carpenters and joiners.”
McMonagle’s concerns are reinforced by Steve Radley, policy director for the CITB. “We’re already starting to see the impact of Brexit in a slowdown of migrant workers from both the EU and non-EU countries, while employers report that it’s more difficult to hold onto good quality staff,” he says.
The FMB is unhappy at government proposals to extend the Tier 2 requirements for non-EU workers to EU workers because of the requirements.
These include: a salary of at least £30,000 per year or the ‘appropriate rate’ for the job offered – whichever is higher; a job already secured in the UK; and £945 in savings for 90 days before, though this requirement is waived if the applicant’s employer is prepared to advance this money if necessary.
“These requirements are fundamentally unsuitable for smaller companies to the point of absurdity,” says McMonagle.
The emphasis upon the ‘highly skilled’ and the definition of what is ‘highly skilled’ is just as contentious, she says. Labourers might be essential to keep sites tidy and safe but they don’t qualify as skilled.
This article was first published in the December/January 2019 issue of The Construction Index magazine