Join the demolition or construction industry, they said. It will be great, they said. We’re hip and groovy, welcoming to all genders, sexual preferences and ethnicities and we “totally get the whole mental health thing”, they said.
That might be what it says on the industry recruitment posters or what is implied during industry interviews. But the reality can be very, very different.
On Thursday last week, I listened to a podcast from an equipment operator called Nigel Williams. To be clear, the episode in question is actually pro-construction and Williams himself is a vocal advocate for all that is good about the industry.
But in the course of explaining why he has taken a role with L Lynch Plant Hire, he reveals some of the hard realities of life at the sharp end of the sector.
He admits that his job as a digger driver contributed directly to the breakdown of his relationship; and that being out of bed at 4.30 am each morning is now so ingrained in his psyche that he does it even when he is not at work. He talks of industry newcomers having to borrow money – putting themselves in debt – to purchase a second-hand caravan in which to live, away from home, from family, friends and any support network. He talks of how his previous employer – prompted by the inexorable rise in the cost of diesel and the switch from rebated red to un-rebated white diesel – had changed direction, effectively rendering his role untenable.
It makes for uncomfortable and troubling listening; and it makes you wonder why anyone would – in their right mind – choose a career in an industry that will work them like a dog and treat them as dispensable. And that’s without even mentioning the risks, hazards, dangers, the rain and the mud that are part and parcel of the sector.
This is an industry that has embraced remotely-controlled and even autonomous machines; cloud computing and retina-scan site security. It is an industry that has made enormous strides in the field of safety and that has pushed workers further and further from the dangers of the work face. And yet, listening to much of Nigel Williams’ podcast, there are large parts of the sector that seem to hark back to the days in which we regularly sent children up chimneys.
There is a huge amount to unpack within this single half hour episode (you can hear it here) but one of the most striking relates to two seemingly unconnected factors.
Williams speaks about the fact that he is out of bed at 4.30 am each day to be out the door by 5.00 am. He also talks about the huge rise in the cost of diesel fuel.
Bearing in mind that most demolition and construction work doesn’t actually begin until 07.00 to 07.30 am, that means that Williams (and countless others just like him) is allowing two hours to get to work. Even on the UK’s increasingly congested roads, two hours is sufficient to drive 50, 75 and even 100 miles to site.
Should we be asking our workforce to travel 150 or more miles each day to and from work? What is the financial and environmental cost of having hundreds of thousands of working men and women schlepping up and down the nation’s highways and byways? And is insisting that industry newcomers purchase a second-hand caravan and accept that their home life is now a thing of the past really the best way to address that?
In so many ways, the combined demolition and construction industry is embracing the very best of the future. In others – sadly – it is clinging on to the very worst of the past.