A five-day program on construction sites could preserve jobs as we ride the waves of COVID-19 and drive long-term cultural change, says Roberts Pizzarotti’s CEO Alison Mirams.
Nothing could prepare construction leaders for what was about to unfold in early March. “I had the distinct thought, about three weeks into the crisis, that I didn’t sign up for this as a CEO,” Mirams says.
It was only “with a lot of lobbying and very good listening from government” that construction sites continued to operate. Had they closed, “the queues for Centrelink would have been 10 times longer,” she says.
While the boutique tier one construction firm continues to complete projects, the forward pipeline of work is a concern. Retail is undergoing a “huge rethink”, universities “have been slammed”, private health investment has stopped with elective surgeries and private schools are worried about losing students. Commercial office and student accommodation investments are stagnant, and while data centres and industrial are faring well, “looking across the industry’s is pretty frightening”.
“Contractors may reduce margins to win work – and they are already on a net margin of around two to three per cent. If we play any more with profit we will get an unsustainable industry.”
There’s a silver lining in every cloud, and Mirams says COVID-19 could be the catalyst for widespread cultural change that boosts diversity, enhances mental health and drives innovation in construction.
“The construction industry has undergone the biggest, fastest experiment into flexible and remote working. Prior to COVID, a lot of people said you couldn’t be remote or part-time and work on a construction site. We’ve proven that you can.”
Mirams says she hopes this will open the door to greater female participation. Construction remains Australia’s most male dominated industry, with women accounting for just 12 per cent of employees and two per cent of tradespeople.
A weekend for every worker
But this isn’t just a story about women’s talent attraction and retention.
“Construction workers are six times more likely to die of suicide than they are from a workplace accident and young workers are 10 times more likely. Young construction workers are 2.5 times more likely to die from suicide than in any other industry.”
The solution may be simple, Mirams says. Roberts Pizzarotti is the main works contractor for Stage 1 of the $341 million Concord Hospital redevelopment. This is the first time in New South Wales that the construction program for a public hospital redevelopment is being delivered on a five-day working week.
In February the University of New South Wales commenced a two-year study to investigate how a reduced work week on the Concord Hospital project improves the health and wellbeing of construction workers and their families. Dr Natalie Galea will lead an interdisciplinary team who “will also put a dollar value on the impact this five-day week has on people and profits,” Mirams says.
Anecdotal feedback is already flooding in, with workers saying that more time with family has improved their mental health and saved their relationships, Mirams explains.
“For all the talk about sustainability of buildings, we need clients to also think about the people delivering the buildings – that’s part of the sustainability equation.”
The NSW Government issued a 10-point commitment to the construction sector, and developed a Taskforce to improve the culture of the industry. The taskforce is determined to “put health back into WHS”, focus on working five-day weeks and embed diversity into the industry. “It will guide NSW Government projects. What would be fantastic is if it was embraced by the whole industry.”
The six-day working week made sense when interest rates were at their peak of 17 per cent during the late 1980s, Mirams adds. “But we don’t need speed any more because the cost of money is negligible. We need the jobs we have to go a bit slower to extend employment until the private sector can catch up.”
Trying to change mindsets is “really hard” but Mirams points to Green Star, which initially faced industry resistance “before one or two REITs took a stand and now it’s business as usual”.
“We are up against the ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality. Trying to break that model and say we have a better way… that’s hard. We are talking about cultural change in an industry that has done it this way for over 50 years. But construction is also an industry that, once something is proven it is accepted,” Mirams says.
“COVID-19 could be the catalyst that drives the cultural change we need.”