Comment – Perfect icing, rotten cake

On Wednesday night, to coincide with National Apprenticeship Week, I co-hosted a marathon live video show on the subject of skills, training and apprenticeships. That show gathered together some of the most forward-thinking companies and organisations in the construction sphere (It is notable that the training providers were not among them).

Over the course of almost than 90 minutes, the show explored the incredible initiatives put in place by – among others – Sunbelt Rentals, Flannery Plant, Lynch Plant, the Construction Planthire Association and the HS2 project.
The show threw a spotlight on the countless career opportunities available to those joining the sector; the clearly defined career path; the lucrative pay available to those with the necessary determination and commitment; and the job satisfaction of potentially being a part of a nation’s history and landscape.

In short, myself and my co-hosts – Peter Haddock and Katie Kelleher – spent an hour and a half talking up all that is good about this dynamic and diverse industry of ours.

I awoke the following morning to a message reminding me that the industry I had presented in such glowing terms still has a dark and far less attractive underbelly; that I had shown off the pretty icing on a cake that is partially rotten within.

This is the message that I received (and, for obvious reasons, the author as chosen to remain anonymous).

It was interesting watching Peter (Haddock) and yourself talking so excitedly about training and apprenticeships tonight. I didn’t comment on your live feed because I didn’t want to give off any negativity.

I have to say though, as someone working at the coal face, there are definitely two sides to the industry; and I see things differently to you guys.

If someone invites you in, only good things are shown. It’s the same when the HSE or the company’s own health and safety people are coming. Everyone knows, and safety concerns get sorted for that day.

I have just been working for a large, well-known company who on social media show themselves as great ambassadors for mental health and how their employees are everything to them. Yet the site I have been on is very different.

Everyone is miserable. They’re dogged for 10 hours a day, shouted at and treated like shit. They announced one morning that 34 people would lose their jobs like it was nothing.

All companies seem to be showing off the apprentice and equality stuff on social media but the reality is not the same.

The industry is in danger of imploding on itself. After nearly 30 years at the coal face, I have decided that I need to find something else to do.

Imagine being so disillusioned with an industry to which you have dedicated much of your working life that you would be willing to just walk away.

Sadly, the toxicity that bubbles just below the surface of the demolition and construction sector will come as no surprise to anyone that has worked within it.

It is an industry that is cursed with unreasonable demands and expectations; plagued with “black hat” supervisors, some of whom have been promoted beyond their skill and leadership capabilities. Together, that is the perfect breeding ground for on-the-job bullying.

For all its talk of mental health awareness, the industry still has a suicide rate that is three times the national average. That is no coincidence.

The sector remains a potentially hostile environment to pretty much anyone that is not white, male and heterosexual. The industry talks frequently and loudly about winning the hearts and minds of young people. But how can it hope to deliver on its promises of rewarding careers when the inherent attitudes of the sector are so at odds with those of young people?

Those same attitudes mean that there is a smaller pot of people and talent upon which to draw, ensuring that the never-ending skills gap will never be plugged. Worse still, the toxic work environment that pervades the sector is now alienating those already working within it.

Before we invite in the 80,000 newcomers the industry reportedly needs each year, perhaps we should focus upon putting the existing house in order.