I recently struck up a conversation with a stalwart of the construction industry here in Brisbane. He had worked for the same company for over forty years. He started out as an apprentice, became a leading hand, foreman, site manager, and now a senior member of the construction management team. So we did what most of us construction survivors do, we exchanged war stories.
A common theme soon developed – most construction companies have forgotten how to be builders. Forty years ago we had a stream of apprentices who were the company’s future. Senior managers rose from the ranks based on ability and experience.
But the key point was that builders used to employ their own tradespeople to carry out the work with a very few specialist subcontractors. Nowadays a project manager is measure on how he can organise a rabble of subcontractors. If he is inefficient and disorganised, it costs the subcontractor. Using your own labour means if you are not organised it costs a fortune. To be organised you need to know how to build.
It could be argued that most construction companies set up a project with the minimum of their own staff, subcontracts out every trade, hire the cranes, hoists, scaffold, and they don’t even own a wheel barrow.
Of course the reason is simple. The client pushes the risk on the construction company, and in turn they push it on to the subcontractor. You cannot back charge your own labour force but it is easy to do it to the subcontractor. This style of project management is run on the same format as a shepherd herding sheep. As long as they are all moving in the right direction, just leave them to it. So the project manager herds the subcontractors and they build it.
This may be the norm in commercial and residential construction but is not the same story in the resources sector. Companies on mine sites tend to employ more of their own labour to carry out what would be subcontract trades. This is mainly due to the control exercised on the construction companies by the mine owners. However, due to the magnitude of these resources projects, there may be several joint venture construction companies who find themselves being treated by the mine companies in the same way a construction company would treat their subcontractors. They don’t like it, because being a subcontractor these days is the end of the food chain, having the biggest risk of not being paid but with all the responsibility that goes into a two hundred page subcontract.
So back to the construction stalwart. He is disillusioned with the industry he has given forty years to, he despises the short slightness of people who won’t employ apprentices, he shakes his head at Google Glass wearing, iPad toting project managers, wants to punch the light out of the Harry Potter lookalike who pays the subcontractors. But he still is cheerful as he can always look at his mark on the landscape that is he can take his grandchildren to see and touch not the jobs he managed but the buildings that he built.
by Gerry Keating