Dr Gretchen Gagel: Looking back and forward

Dr Gretchen Gagel looks back upon 25 years of project excellence and forward to the challenges we face as an industry.

By Dr Gretchen Gagel

Serving as one of the four judges for the 25th anniversary of the Australian Construction Achievement Award in 2022 was an uplifting event that solidified the tremendous pride I feel for our industry. This collaboration between the Australian Constructors Association and Engineers Australia represents the spirit of collaboration we value so deeply in the construction sector. To hear each nominated project team passionately explain how they worked together to solve technical challenges, to engage the next generation and local communities, and to achieve outstanding results, was remarkable.

What I also appreciate about our industry is that we continue to strive for improvement. Earlier this year, in collaboration with study sponsors the Construction User Roundtable and Construction Industry Institute, I interviewed forty-four construction industry leaders in Europe, Australia, Asia, and the United States to explore current trends, issues and solutions. These six key themes emerged:

1. Technology adoption

Those interviewed spoke of the progress we are making in the use of new technologies such as drones and lidar scanners. However, challenges remain. As one engineering executive put it, “Clients are asking for rigorous digital delivery ahead of its time. It’s making people crazy, costing dollars, and we don’t get the benefit of the beginning of technology adoption. We’re on a journey together, and owners are pretty rational about it.” One client stated, “Technology is not making us faster because we are swimming in data.” Continuing to crack the technology adoption code will be critical to gains in productivity in the coming decade for our industry.

2. Asset sustainability

Earthquakes, fires, high winds, flooding. The US alone experienced 14 different $1 billion or higher disasters in 2019, the fourth highest year on record; and it’s estimated that natural disasters now cost Australia $38 billion per year. Our industry plays an important role in solving the asset sustainability challenge. As one Australian engineer executive stated, “The one and only thing we need to pay attention to is climate change; floods, fires and rooves blown off houses.”

3. Supply chain and estimating

More than half of those interviewed feel that we’ll be dealing with supply chain issues for more than four years, and that estimating has become “guestimating” at best. One global pharmaceutical company indicated that “missing a $0.25 part in a cable tray caused a three-month delay.” However, we have also seen incredible agility in keeping projects going in the face of supply chain adversity. We’ve also seen collaboration in repricing projects to ensure that clients continue to receive value and suppliers make an appropriate profit.

4. Power

Our industry frequently exhibits complicated power dynamics that do not contribute to the highest levels of productivity and value. As one client study participant stated, “These are master-servant relationships that start with the procurement models.” Another client participant stated, “Trust issues remain. It’s in our culture, our contractual norms, our ways of working. People are protective of transparency, worried about liabilities and potential claims.” But we are seeing improvement in collaboration and a recognition that longer term, trusting supplier relationships pay off. As one global client stated, “What helps us? Really good, longer-term strategic relationships with vendors that improve everyone and provide greater transparency. It’s not standard practice, but it’s getting better.”

5. Labour shortage

This is a global issue with Australia alone forecast to project a 100,000-person shortage in construction by 2023. The great news on this front is that improving our image and our work practices to ensure we are attracting the top talent of the world is a significant area of focus. The efforts of the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce are but one global initiative to solve this problem. Attracting a more diverse workforce is also critical. As one person stated, “This is an acknowledgment of the reality that diversity makes a difference and that diverse teams are better at problem-solving and innovation.”

6. Mental wellbeing

Our industry has made great strides in addressing physical safety concerns, and now understands that being one of the leading industries for suicide is not acceptable. Participants shared many examples of progress.

As one global contractor stated, “People are getting the message, and we are destigmatising talking about it. We’ve trained our supervisors for the signs to look for. Our safety award program for the first year had two awards for helping people in mental distress. We need client support to make it work as clients that ‘get it’ and treat us like human beings make the difference.”

A leading Australian contractor shared this: “For the last decade, we’ve trained people to be connectors with a two-day training course and stickers to identify them to help with mental wellbeing.” This is progress.

We need to continue to recognise the tremendous successes of our industry through vehicles such as the Australian Construction Achievement Award; and continue to face our industry challenges head on.

It’s through collaboration, trust, and innovation that we will drive progress and change for a better industry more capable of serving the needs of our society.

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”. For a copy of the study discussed please reach out to her directly at ggagel@greatnessconsulting.com.

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