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Construction face lift

Courses; Learning to value people

People friendly training is becoming the vogue in construction. The need for skills such as communication and team building has been recognised, not least to improve the industry's image and attractiveness to recruits. But how are these soft skills being taught? Jon Masters reports.

There is a key paragraph on page 17 of the Government's Rethinking construction report under the heading 'Drivers of change and commitment to people'.

The paragraph says: ''Much of construction does not yet recognise that its people are its greatest asset . . . construction cannot afford not to get the best from the people who create value for clients and profits for companies.'

The industry certainly has a poor image as an employer and also has a problem attracting much other than white males. There is little ethnic diversity and an extraordinary gender imbalance. Some 98% of the industry's professionals are white and only 10% are female.

A number of initiatives have appeared, intended to make construction a more pleasant environment to work in. A common theme is culture change and the focus for promoting this seems to be training in people skills - which can be defined as an ability to communicate well and work effectively as part of a team.

Perhaps the most publicised and largest 'people' orientated initiative in terms of scope is the govenment-backed Movement for Innovation (M4I) and its Respect for People working group.

ICE, Construction Industry Council, Construction Industry Board and CITB are all promoting 'people' based initiatives, recognising that the industry needs to more obviously value its people and encourage diversity if it is to improve its reputation and profits.

An update on developments in culture change at Birse is a worthwhile exercise to gauge how the construction industry is improving its people management skills.

Birse announced an intention to overhaul its corporate approach to business in 1996 when the company publicly apologised to clients and suppliers for its previous adversarial conduct.

Birse Construction director Louise Williamson says the company ran a fast-track programme for women to encourage them to aim to become board directors.

Williamson was one to be encouraged through the ranks and is now in charge of engineering, IT, safety, quality and the company's people department.

'The people department is responsible for human resources and training within Birse Construction and has a culture manager responsible for co-ordinating training and a workshop for inducting all employees in the ethos of the company,' she says.

'We have a Learning for Life programme which sets out training guidelines and each employee has a mentor within the company for guidance on career development.'

Williamson says Birse Construction has had an equal oportunities policy for some time. But more importantly, the company has an action plan for recruiting a higher percentage of women and ethnic minorities.

'We have teamed up with Teesside University in a European Community- funded scheme, which is aiming to recruit more women into the police force and health service as well as the construction industry.'

The culture change initiated at Birse has had a positive effect on the bottom line, claims Williamson.'The company is now carrying out a far higher percentage of partnered and negotiated work and clients appreciate our people friendly nature,' she says.

Since August last year, Reading-based consultant Gibb Europe has been developing a more people friendly culture within its operations by pursuing Investors in People (IiP) status. Gibb human resources manager Caroline Blanchette says IiP sets a level of good practice for improving a company's performance through valuing and training its staff.

'Pursuit of IiP is at the heart of the Gibb strategy for business development. It involves linking all training to business objectives and evaluating what training is needed for the good of the individual and the company,' says Blanchette.

Gibb's initiative in Europe is being linked closely to its African sister company within the LawGibb Group. Gibb Africa purchased the South African consulting engineer Arcus during 1999 and has instigated a culture change initiative to eradicate prejudice within its new company.

'Changes are needed from board level downwards to ensure greater equality in the company,' Blanchette says.

'Two companies are coming together so we are using this opportunity to reappraise all people issues including training and team ethics within both organisations using our Transformation Programme.

'We are also linking IiP to the work in South Africa to ensure knowledge is shared and the best practice results from both initiatives come together.'

Kvaerner is also gearing its training towards team building and developing a more people friendly approach. The company's divisional human resources manager Tim Calow heads a department that provides training for all Kvaerner companies and projects.

'The training we provide is aimed at solving busines problems,' says Calow. 'We have technical skills in abundance. It is a lack of soft skills that can cause projects to fail.'

Kvaerner has developed project-specific teambuilding workshops, says Calow, which involve a continual review of how the team is working together.

'The bottom line is we want to generate more business. To do this we are looking at relationships throughout the supply chain and how teams can be made more effective by improving communication skills.'

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