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Staying power: 30 years in construction recruitment

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Sarah Harvey, Director of Harvey Lawrence, has just celebrated her 30th anniversary in construction recruitment. Here she reflects on her time in the industry!

When I took my first construction recruitment job in 1989, I would never have imagined I would still be in the industry 30 years later. Thriving for three decades in this role is rare, as it’s such a tough, competitive environment to work in.

My time in construction recruitment has given me a unique insight on the industry as a whole, and I wanted to discuss the evolution I’ve seen and the changes I still want to see.

As we approach the end of an uncertain year, we’re hoping 2020 will be reinvigorated through political clarity. For construction talent, be it permanent or temporary staff, if you do a good job and add value, you win through.

Construction

An Improved Landscape

The industry has undergone a major image transformation over the last 30 years and has emerged as more professional and respectable. The industry we know today is process-led, policy-driven and digitalised. The culture of the late 1980s has been largely overhauled, and as a result, we all work in a more positive sector.

Whilst policy is a must in order to mitigate risk, there is a feeling that policy can be more of a tick-box exercise with the clear exception of health and safety. We have seen a complete behavioural overhaul of health and safety, and rightly so. The standards have skyrocketed, meaning workers are happier, more productive and significantly safer in their roles. 

Equally, 30 years ago, there was no such thing as having records and plans stored digitally. Advancements in technology have enabled plans to be viewed in 3D, making it more efficient to plan and develop construction projects.

The concept of construction management software has also revolutionised the industry. It allows different parties to collaborate on projects with more ease, which means they can make necessary changes much faster.

We also talk about equality, diversity and inclusion, and wanting to attract more women into construction. Fortunately, how the industry treats its stakeholders is worlds apart from where we were in the late 80s.

Industry leaders who are stuck in their old ways still exist, but thankfully, they are now few and far between. They need to be as they actively deter females from the industry and cause good staff members to look for better prospects elsewhere.

Where We Need to Build a Better Industry

Culturally, the industry has improved, but there are issues that still need to be resolved. I think the way parties interact with each other has remained largely unchanged with confrontation still rife. Because of this, the industry loses talent that doesn’t cope well in harsh cultures.

Being overly tough just isn’t the right approach for today’s talent. The industry has been very slow to adjust here, despite claiming otherwise. Staff retention hasn’t improved massively over the years, but if we adapted the same zero tolerance approach to poor management as we do to health and safety, workers will be more inclined to stay in their roles.

People often tell us they feel like they’re in a straight-jacket, unable to offer ideas or honest feedback for fear of it putting a black mark against their name. Similarly, there are widespread comments that people feel like their appraisals are rushed and merely part of box-ticking process. 

Whilst policy is key to compliance and risk mitigation, there needs to be a greater level of sincerity around policies. We have to take them more seriously instead of using them to simply satisfy legislative criteria.

I can still remember how fondly professionals spoke about their careers in the late 80s and 90s. Despite how far the construction industry has advanced, it doesn’t feel like workers these days have the same sense of team spirit and respect for each other.

There seems to be a worrying sense of disillusionment with how they’re treated, with company politics and what many consider to be overkill on process. Talented professionals feel stifled and that their roles are now less skilled with the growth of automation processes.

I knew many site engineers, site managers, quantity surveyors and the like who are now senior industry leaders. It seems the generation of yesteryear had a real appetite to progress, but these workers are now within a few years of retirement. As a general observation, I think those who have come through the industry in the last ten to fifteen years don’t have the same desires.

This is concerning as it poses a potential problem for sourcing future leaders and begs the question as to why people don’t want these roles. It’s highly unlikely they don’t want an increase in salary, bonuses and kudos. It’s more than likely they don’t want to deal with the complicated processes, backstage politics and blame culture that many perceive comes with career progression.    

Towards the end of the 80s, late payment was rife. We still hear about poor payment issues today, which is leading to the same business failures we saw three decades ago. Payment has improved on the whole, but I feel it may have regressed in 2019. We talk about fair treatment and timely payment, but there are still behaviours that fly in the face of these principles.          

Recruitment: The Success and Failures of the Industry

The recruitment industry has also evolved a great deal during my three decades in the business. When I first started out, recruitment was completely paper-based, and sales offices were smoke-filled dens of relentless, high-pressure sales activity. The role was purely phone–based and job boards were unheard of.

The way in which jobseekers look for new roles now has certainly changed. Over the last few years, I have witnessed the rise of job boards, applicant tracking systems, portals and social media — LinkedIn in particular. Previously, advertising was mostly confined to industry magazines, and anyone looking for a different job would need to look at adverts while on their tea-break.

In this digital age, I feel as though the sector has lost its perspective of what it means to be good at recruitment. I was taught recruitment from first principles, which means building up a profile of a person’s experience and aspirations through detailed face-to-face discussions.

We built trust with clients this way, as they knew we were doing our due diligence rather than just lifting profiles from social media or job boards. Today, this latter approach has sadly become all too common, and I feel it has created an inherent distrust of clients towards agencies. 

There is no denying that technology is very much part of modern recruitment. I talk to many clients who are frustrated that they haven’t filled their roles when all they’ve done is placed an advert online. You don’t achieve the right results working like that, which is why we need more credible, connected recruiters who understand the industry and the people they are looking to find roles for.

Relationships are still key; they always have been and always will be. However, the skill of being able to make good judgement decisions based on knowledge and due diligence has been hugely diminished.

Technology should improve efficiency and enhance recruitment outcomes, but I think, unlike in construction, it has had an adverse effect, leading to a poorer service in general.

30 Years On — Achievements and Lessons

I’m proud to have survived 30 years in construction recruitment, and that I have stuck it out through three recessions. I’m also proud to have led two start-up recruitment businesses, one for a major player and one being my own, which has been a success for the last 18 years and counting.

I have retained many of my clients throughout my working life, and Harvey Lawrence’s repeat business levels with clients is currently running at 83%. You can only achieve results like that through hard work and adapting to an evolving industry.

Honesty has set my business apart, which goes a long way in explaining how we have formed so many lasting relationships with clients. In 18 years, we have only had one legal dispute, and we believe that our transparency is the reason why our clients put their trust in us.

Experience has taught me to keep my feet on the ground as I have seen first-hand how quickly things can change. This is partly why we are totally self-funded with a strong credit rating. My industry longevity has taught me to be prudent and cautious.

I underestimated how difficult managing a business could be at times. I didn’t factor in economic or legislative changes well enough, but I managed to get my head around the learning curve, which has led to my company thriving.

Both the construction and recruitment industries have seen positive changes over the 30 years, and I’m sure it will continue to improve. It will be interesting to see how culture and collaboration between parties will make strides towards ending conflict in the workplace.

It seems that the industry still has some work to do in creating a more conciliatory culture, one which is motivational for staff and the supply chain. However, the future looks bright, and as long as the industry is willing to adapt, we should achieve better results for all stakeholders involved.

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