Why does the construction industry have such a poor image?

What comes to mind when you think about construction? Cowboy builders? Workplace accidents? Ignorant cat-calling?

Chances are, the things you think of aren’t positive. The construction industry has suffered from a poor reputation for decades, and there is no denying that it is contributing to one of the most severe labour deficits in recent memory.

This is no new revelation. The poor public perception of the construction industry is listed in Mark Farmer’s 2016 report Modernise or Die, an 80-page review which pulled no punches in giving stark warnings about the future of building in the UK.

Highlighting ‘poor industry image’ as one symptom of industry failure, the review recommended that:

A reformed CITB or stand-alone body should be challenged and empowered to deliver a more powerful public-facing story and image for the holistic ‘built environment process’, of which construction forms part.

‘Modernise or Die’, The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model, October 2016

So far, this hasn’t happened. In the five years since Modernise or Die was published, there has been very little in the way of initiatives to improve the reputation of the construction industry, which has suffered from poor perceptions of job security, workplace safety and media coverage of shoddy building work.

But it’s not just about cleaning up an image. Young people, dissuaded from the construction industry through a lack of education and negative attitudes impressed upon them from a number of sources, are choosing alternative careers; and this is making an already critical skills shortage even worse. It’s threatening the sustainability of the industry, and is a dark cloud on the horizon which is looming ever closer.

Modernise or Die warned that by 2026 around 620,000 construction workers would have reached retirement age. In 2015, Arcadis released a report entitled People and Money, which warned that an additional 700,000 construction personnel were required in order to meet Government housing completion targets, on top of the 120,000 people needed just to meet the capacity at that time.

Throw Brexit and COVID into the mix, and the UK finds itself facing the highest demand for construction workers in 20 years, with levels of EU construction workers plummeting by 51% across the UK between the first quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2021.

UK construction finds itself on the edge of the precipice. Whilst improvements need to be made across a wide range of areas to encourage entrants into the industry, there’s no doubt that a huge PR investment needs to be made to turn public perception around and attract new talent. It comes down to a simple, yet undeniable, fact: without people, there is no industry.

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