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Mark Farmer: Brexit could be a 'blessing'

Industry expert Mark Farmer warned last year that the sector is facing a “ticking timebomb”.  

In his government-commissioned report Modernise or Die, Mr Farmer claimed that unless the industry and government did more to tackle key problems – such as an ageing workforce, lack of new entrants and failure to embrace technology – the sector was at risk of implosion.

Here Mr Farmer, who is chief executive of consultancy Cast, speaks to Construction News about the response to his report, Brexit and the industry’s image problem: 

Are you satisfied with the industry’s response to your report?

The reaction has been a positive one. Generally there has been a recognition that many of the issues I raised in my report need to be addressed, particularly the risk around workforce attrition in the years ahead, due to the ageing labour pool.

Is there some frustration in the lack of progress though?

I wasn’t expecting any big bang; this is a long haul. For me, one of the most pleasing things is the fact the government has understood the urgency too.

From a policy perspective there’s been some positive signs. If you look at the housing white paper, the government has recognised the issue of skills and the need for innovative construction in housebuilding.

That ties into the industrial strategy and some very specific policy initiatives such as the accelerated construction programme.

Are you concerned by the impact of Brexit?

Brexit could be a blessing in the medium to long term in relation to the industry. It could cause the industry to change in the way it hasn’t been able to do in the past.

“I’m sceptical whether mandating things in isolation is going to be enough. You need to do something that’s physically rooted in how we deliver”

But we don’t want a mass implosion caused by a sudden exodus of workers, as [that would] mean we’d be unable to operate as a fit-for-purpose industry in the short term. Ideally what we need is some short-term protections around workforce mobility that mean we can carry on with business as usual.

But the industry needs to take responsibility for how it works, for delivering productivity, for innovating, so that in the long term it’s less reliant on the migrant labour it’s become so dependent on, and so it’s able to deliver more with less.

Is enough being done to drive innovation?

The key one for me is the concept of pre-manufacturing, – moving processes to an offsite environment, getting more efficient around designs with construction and assembly in mind. 

But I’m sceptical about whether mandating things in isolation over how we build is going to be enough to change. You need to do something that’s physically rooted in how we deliver.

“Our industry does not like to collaborate. So trying to drive an agenda for change by driving collaboration is on a hiding to nothing”

BIM is an abstract digital tool and even [though] it’s mandated for government work it won’t be transformational. You need to physically hardwire it into how we construct, and that’s where pre-manufacturing comes in.

Is collaboration the key?

There’s been lots of talk about how you improve collaboration. But that’s another area that is a red herring.

Our industry does not like to collaborate. It’s behaviourally quite backward in many respects. It’s adversarial. So trying to drive an agenda for change by driving collaboration is on a hiding to nothing. You have to force that change by changing the physical way we build and then the collaboration has to flow from it.

Is enough being done to promote the public image of construction?

Lots of people try to do good stuff – Open Doors is an example. It’s commendable that people are taking the initiative to try to make inroads.

But unless we fundamentally change what construction represents as a process and in terms of a career, then we’re going to have a glass ceiling on how much things improve.

“If we’re more digital in our way of working then you address the image issue as well and actually have half a chance of attracting more kids”

Kids do not want to work in traditional construction. They want to be involved with digital; they want to be in an indoor, controlled environment, not out in fairly aggressive conditions with health and safety risks.

We’ve always had a problem, but there has been a generational shift in the last 10-20 years that has made it even more difficult.

The image issue is linked to how we deliver. If we move to a more hybrid model and [be] more digital in our way of working through design and construction, then you address the image issue as well and actually have half a chance of attracting more kids. 

Will T-levels help?

The idea of the T-level is right. The key thing is what that T-level might look like for construction. You have to have the right stakeholders around the table to ensure that is completely aligned to what industry wants.

It’s massively important for me that any vocational skill or qualification has to have an element of what future skills are going to be required for the construction industry – digital, pre-manufacturing, assembly, logistics – they all have to play a part in what that T-level might look like.

Are you concerned about the general election being a distraction?

Yes, it’s not ideal.

It’s another excuse for suspended animation. In a policy context, certain things that are in train will now be held for two or three months. You can see the best part of half a year being lost.

On the plus side, it will give a new five-year horizon in terms of stability on policy. There is some upside, but it’s at a time when we should really be motoring on modernisation, so it’s a slight step backwards.

Mark Farmer at CN Summit 2017 

Mark Farmer will be among more than 65 top industry speakers appearing at the Construction News Summit in November. 

Among the themes he will look at will be the impact of his report Modernise or Die, one year on from publication.

Click here to see some of the other speakers for this year’s two-day event. 

Book your place at the CN Summit now and get 10 per cent off using the code CNSUM10.

  • Mark Farmer CEO Cast real estate and construction consultancy

    Mark Farmer: Brexit could be a 'blessing'

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