Good News, Bad News & Worrying Times

The publication of a Northern Ireland Budget for 2018/19 recently is to be welcomed. QPANI are pleased to see the level of capital budget for infrastructure projects has increased and the continuing commitment to the flagship projects like the A6, A5, Belfast Transport Hub, Desertcreat and the RVH Mother and Childrens Hospital. There is also a clear commitment to start the much needed York Street Junction in Belfast once procurement issues are resolved.

However QPANI, along with other Construction colleagues, such as the Institute of Civil Engineers, Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation and the CEF, have raised our concerns that the spending allocations within the infrastructure capital budget is not balanced properly and there needs to be a stronger commitment to maintaining the roads, water and public transport infrastructure we already have. The current level of potholes and deterioration of our £35 billion roads network is unprecedented and is a clear safety risk to the travelling public and all who use our roads.

On a more positive note, and as a result of intensive Industry lobbying and support from within the Department of Infrastructure, the recent Budget allocations have secured a much higher level of structural maintenance funding for the start of the 2018/19 financial year. This is good news for the wider construction materials industry not just our Asphalt producers and contractors.

QPANI are liaising with Department of Infrastructure and Department of Finance to ensure we build upon this increased commitment to our existing infrastructure and develop 3-4 years longer term funding so that we can address the huge underspend in the maintenance of roads, water and public transport infrastructure. The priority in the short term now is to see the additional money translated into work on the ground that will be carried out during the summer months with longer days and better weather leading to enhanced planning, safety and quality that will encourage contractors to increase investment in skills and other resources.

Low Confidence

Despite the good news above I am sure everyone was shocked to hear of the news that Lagan Construction went into administration. This only a matter of weeks after the fall of Carillion and with the rumour mill in Northern Ireland now going at full speed there are worries that Lagan Construction will not be the last big name contractor in Northern Ireland to go.

The confidence within the construction materials supply chain is at an all time low and this is not of their making. So what is going on and how can we fix it, I hear you ask? The reality is everyone knows what the cause is and how to fix it! Low cost tendering and the clients acceptance of it is the cause.

I believe as an industry in NI we have recently taken steps, through the Construction Industry Forum NI Task Groups, to address the endemic problems within the local Industry. A number of pilot projects have been set up by CPD awarding tenders to the mean average of the three lowest tenders. In addition requirements such as monitoring prompt and fair payment practices, increasing use of project bank accounts, proper and robust assessment of contractors financial standing one would hope we shall shortly see the end of the lowest price / sub-economic tendering practices.

What has happened should also be a wake-up call for those within the public sector who believe that contractors and their supply chain are making a fortune and ripping off the public purse. Let’s hope we also see strong leadership from within the very highest levels of the construction contracting sector to end the policy and practice that you can bid on the basis of low, or even negative margins, on the assumption of discounts from the construction supply chain. Those days are over.

Age profiling

On a very much related matter the QPANI has recently published its Age Profiling Survey results. The success and long term sustainability of any Industry is dictated both by the quality of the people within it and its ability to attract qualified, enthusiastic young people with the right work ethic. The Association last carried out an age profiling assessment back in 2015 and that highlighted the fact we have an ageing workforce with ongoing challenges in attracting and recruiting young people into our Industry.

While economic conditions are continuing to improve the construction materials industry are still experiencing difficulties in recruiting younger people as are others sectors within the wider Construction Industry and economy. Once again the survey results, as we expected, show an continuing need to address the skills and succession issues the industry is facing and which, if not addressed, will further deteriorate and endanger the long term viability and sustainability of the Industry.

The work the QPANI are engaged in currently with our Young Leaders Group and Inspiring Futures Initiative will hopefully help in highlighting our Industry as an attractive career option.

The survey was carried out over the last quarter of 2017 with returns coming from  21 companies representing 2592 employees from a total industry direct workforce of 4000 ,a 65% return in terms of employee numbers. The survey encompassed the QPANI membership across the Asphalt, Quarrying, Ready Mixed Concrete and Precast Concrete sectors covering those employees involved in administration, operational, technical, sales and transport roles. The results clearly show an over representation in the older age groups of 36 years of age and above, in all sectors with Quarrying and Transport having a particularly higher age profile in operational and transport roles.

The survey results will now be used by QPANI to inform members and relevant industry stakeholders of the critical succession, skills and recruitment issues facing the industry with a view to formulating and implementing an industry wide plan to address these worrying trends. The results highlight the urgent need for a partnership approach and continuing work by the QPANI and other construction materials representative bodies such as the Institute of Quarrying, Chartered Institute of Highways, Concrete Society and Institute of Asphalt Technology.

This partnership led plan should include:

  • Building partnerships with the Further Education and Post Primary Education sectors.
  • Government Lobbying, particularly of Department of the Economy and Department of Infrastructure through the new Minerals Forum and the Construction Forum.
  • The need to continue our work promoting apprenticeship schemes across all industry sectors we represent that will hopefully develop a conveyor belt of trainee managers who in time will develop skill sets and competencies which will secure the future sustainability of the Industry.
  • A continuing commitment by our Industry to raise the bar in relation to performance, health and safety, environmental best practice and communication with communities and thereby make the industry inherently more attractive for career minded and capable young people.
  • Further develop training and competencies frameworks that will map out a career path for prospective employees coming into the Industry.

As part of our drive to promote careers and opportunities within our Industry a number of QPANI members from our Young Leaders Group are now part of a Construction Youth Forum put together by the NI Construction Group and CITBNI.

This year the Association has decided to organise what we are calling “Leadership Briefings” for our Young Leaders Group. This will involve a quarterly get together at which a past or present Leader from the Construction Materials Sector in NI will give of their time to come along and speak about their careers, their experiences, their Leadership technique and principles, what they have learned during their career and importantly will give free advice to our Young Leaders as they are building a career in our great Industry.