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Creating a sustainable construction industry culture

Creating a sustainable construction industry culture

This month, Dr Gretchen Gagel caught up with Gabrielle Trainor, Chair of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT), to discuss sustainable construction and the Culture Standard being adopted across the industry in Australia.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel.

Dr Gretchen Gagel.

‘Green construction’ isn’t just about sustainable development and the environment. It’s also about the people we attract to the construction industry and how we create a sustainable future. During my nearly 40-year career in construction, I’ve had several opportunities to work with groups focused upon creating a significant shift in the industry. For example, in 2017, I worked with the US Construction Industry Institute (CII) to create a “Manifesto for Change”, to address several systemic issues in our industry.

I was thrilled to be asked to join the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT) in 2020, a group of dedicated government and private industry individuals. Their focus is upon securing the long-term sustainability of the industry through the broad adoption of a Culture Standard in Australia. I sat down with CICT Chair Gabrielle Trainor to talk about the initiative.

Gretchen: Why is it so critical that we focus upon the sustainability of the construction industry in Australia?

Gabrielle: The case for a strong focus on the sustainability of our industry is overwhelming.

The scale of the construction industry has significant impacts in several areas:

1) Environmentally – in terms of our total scope greenhouse gas emissions and the way the built form affects humanity, heritage and our natural world.

2) Socially – considering the quality-of-life construction can deliver to communities, offset by the human costs in doing so.

3) Economically – the sum of those parts achieving the equilibrium of all costs and all benefits.

From the CICT’s point of view, we have concentrated on the construction industry workplace, at the infrastructure end initially, and its need for change.

There have been many projects seeking to address gender, diversity, mental health and wellbeing for decades, yet the statistics have not moved. However, our industry, clients and stakeholders have recognised that serious change is urgently needed. The momentum is palpable, here, and internationally.

The most obvious self-interested perspective is that we need over 100,000 people in the industry, almost immediately, to fulfil the infrastructure pipeline that is presently committed. Despite great achievements, ours in not an industry of choice, especially among women (12 per cent of the workforce), and increasingly among young men.

There have been great inroads on physical safety – to everyone’s credit – but a wider lens reveals workers’ lives and wellbeing take a second place to the need to deliver projects on time and on budget.

We need to focus, together, on an integrated approach. We need to require cultural change as part of a new bargain for construction projects. I strongly believe, and the evidence supports, that holistic culture change will create a more diverse, safe and productive industry.

Gretchen: If we’re sitting here 10 years from now talking about the successes achieved by CICT, what are the highlights?

Gabrielle: Our Culture Standard, developed by the NSW and Victorian Governments, and the Australian Constructors Association, together with other industry leaders and researchers, seeks to tackle three key domains of industry culture together. They are working hours, gender diversity and wellbeing. Our Standard requires active plans, self-set targets and programs to be included in tenders for infrastructure projects as requirements of the procurement process.

By 2032 I foresee, that following the success of our pilot projects, the Standard has been adopted in government policy nation-wide and is required for all client projects – public and private. That’s our aim and to get there will be an extraordinary moment.

In a decade, it would be great to see subcontractors, and everyone in the supply chain for projects, supported in implementing the Standard.

The goal is, by 2032, to see women account for a vastly greater percentage of the construction industry workforce. The industry should be seen as a great industry to work in for all – where jobs are rewarding; where everyone is welcome, encouraged, developed and respected; where projects create extraordinary satisfaction; and where the statistics on diversity, mental health and wellbeing have shifted.

In the future, I see the industry recognised as a leader in sustainability in all its aspects – they all go hand-in-hand.

Gretchen: We’ve both seen initiatives like this in the industry before. What makes this one different? Why will it succeed?

Gabrielle: The Culture Standard is different to the many other efforts to improve the industry because:

  • It is a truly collaborative approach involving government, clients, industry and researchers. It has also had support and engagement from the union movement.
  • It seeks to tackle industry culture holistically. This recognises working hours, diversity and wellbeing are interrelated – addressing one at a time, independently, will not move the needle as far as is urgently needed.
  • It uses the procurement process as the vehicle to require change. The platform is burning, and change will not happen unless it is part of the contractual requirement for all proponents, equally. Reform will not happen unless the playing field among contractors is level and support is given through the whole of the supply chain.
  • The Standard is strongly evidence based. Our research testing the application of the Standard on a number of pilot projects will demonstrate, we believe, that productivity will improve if projects are procured under the Standard.

Having said that, the Standard itself addresses workplaces. It will take time for change to be felt and as we know, the complex societal and broader contracting environment also needs to change. We need sustained effort across the entire spectrum.

Gretchen: How can people become involved?

Gabrielle: The first step is to go to our website and get in touch. We are keen to hear people’s experiences and suggestions as well as projects willing to test the Standard as a pilot.

You can read about the elements of the Standard and the research behind them at cultureinconstruction.com.au

Gabrielle Trainor AO is a non-executive director and advisor whose experience covers over 25 years on boards in the public and private sectors. She is a member of the boards of the Victorian Government’s Major Transport Infrastructure Authority and listed investment company WAM Global. She is a director of the ACT City Renewal Authority, the Western Parkland City Authority and Built Pty Ltd. Gabrielle is a member of the Western Sydney University Foundation and a trustee of the Charlie Perkins Education Trust. She chairs the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce, a joint project of industry, academe and the NSW and Victorian governments.
Dr. Gretchen Gagel is Chair of Brinkman Construction (US), a member of the National Academy of Construction (US), a member of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (AUS), and an affiliate professor at the Australian National University and the University of Denver. As President/Managing Director of Greatness Consulting Pty Ltd she continues to advise organisations within the construction industry on optimising capital program delivery and developing talent. You can hear more from Gretchen on her Spotify podcast, “Greatness”.

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