A cross section of some of the construction industry’s prime motivators and, possibly, influencers, lined up at UTS Business School in Sydney last week in front of a 300-strong mostly student audience to hear words of inspiration on how to change the industry for the better.

Major drawcard on stage was NSW Building commissioner David Chandler who’s been credited with starting the gargantuan job cleaning up the excesses and failures within the building industry after a number of failed apartment buildings ruined the bank balances (and sometimes lives) of scores of buyers and pretty well threatened the credibility of the entire sector

David Chandler, NSW Building Commissioner

Also on the panel was Coronation Property general manager David Cremona; Richard Crookes Constructions site engineer, Stephanie Nguyen, deputy managing director of Decode Group Divya Mehta; Frasers Property Australia general manager of delivery and operations, Nicholle Sparkes; and Master Builders Association NSW executive director, Brian Seidler.

According to Professor Martin Loosemore who organised the event and teaches corporate social responsibility and people management in construction at UTS, the panel discussion was designed to inspire the future leaders of the construction industry.

The idea was to empower them to “have the courage to go into the industry and challenge the way things are done – the norms, practices and standards and expectations of workmanship and ethics.”

No less.

It was also to give the students the chance to meet some current leaders of the industry and hear how they got there.

Gaining trust was key to the change that the industry needed according to David Chandler.

He could see growing numbers of property owners seeking Green Star and NABERs ratings as a way of gaining trust.

“[Asset owners] might go back down to a three and a half or four star rating but that’s just not a trustworthy building. A trustworthy building is something that doesn’t harm anyone – it doesn’t do physical, emotional, economic harm and it doesn’t harm the environment in which it’s being made.”

These were the four cornerstones of trust, he said.

But the building industry had a lot more work to do to reclaim trust from the public in an age where trust in buildings was falling. The students who are graduating today are the ones who will become the custodians of trustworthiness in the industry, he said.

Divya Mehta, the deputy managing director of Decode Groupsaid being open to change meant being adaptable.

“How do you bring about change in the industry? How do you drive change in the industry? I think my only answer to that would be by being adaptable. And authentic.

“So first is realising that change is needed. And we all know that change is inevitable. We all know that we can’t run away from it.”

Mehta herself had to adapt when her company grew from the initial five staff to 130.

“First be adaptable for yourself, lead by example, and take everybody along with you.”

What about the work life balance, especially for women?

There are no short cuts, Mehta said.

“How can a woman be in an industry full of men on site, yet comfortable to lead how she wants to, while being a mother?”

The answer is that it’s not easy. “It’s never going to be easy, and it never was. But I think the same answer stands for every industry. I haven’t seen an industry where it comes easy.

“So I feel that the only way you can sustain [leadership] in that environment is by being yourself, prioritising at the right time. And being efficient. I think the pressure of being able to do it all comes from within – no one can put that externally on me. And they should not be able to put it externally on you. It’s us. It’s a self-inflicted pressure we take as good people …we want to do our best.

“And the day we realise that it’s us that’s causing that pressure on ourselves, we’ll be able to handle it better. And we’ll be able to communicate and outperform. So I think it can happen. Yes, it’s not easy, but it has never been easy.”

She said it was important in the industry to be forever learning and she paid homage to her colleague and “forever-learner” Frank Farina, who spent more than 63 years in the construction industry (and she asked him to stand up in the audience and address the crowd).

Coronation Property general manager David Cremona said that a curious mind was the best thing for a built environment student to have. As someone who started as a labourer, Cremona remembered how he stay back at work because he was curious to discover how tradespeople would achieve certain outcomes.

“I was on site as a labourer with no qualifications whatsoever, sweeping and cleaning the floors and I would go up to a carpenter and ask, ‘why do you do that?’ That curiosity drove my passion. I then went to TAFE and found that a very valuable experience for myself.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he added.

“And as you work your way up the ladder, it’s really important to surround yourself with good people – you’d be surprised how many people would take their time out to sit down with you and explain the reasons why something works and why they do something.”

Frasers Property Australia general manager of delivery and operations, Nicholle Sparkes added that a good trait for young builders to have, is to challenge themselves.

“For me it was hard to learn from books, so if I became curious, I would just turn up to meetings or be part of a hot smoke test and one day someone would give me something to do.

“You keep putting yourself into situations until someone tells you – you can’t be part of it.

When you’re in a room with someone who’s done something thousands of times asks them as many questions as you can, Sparkes said.

“And if you are the smartest person in the room, you are probably not in the right room.”

Master Builders Association NSW executive director, Brian Seidler said that not everyone in the industry employs with the intention to educate and that’s causing a shortage of young students with the right trade certification.

“We don’t have many in our industry who invest in those wanting a pathway through trade,” Seidler said.

“We have a whole host of reasons why completion rates for apprenticeship are going down, despite high intake and the biggest reason is education – we are not educating our young ones to follow through a trade pathway.”

The key driver to change in the industry was government, he said.

“Change has mainly been driven by the government, or by local government wanting to introduce change,” Seidler said.

And example was the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1983, where a new system for how to deal with safety was the mammoth exercise of making the building industry responsible for those who work for it.

“One of the main movers and major disruptors has to be the government. We can’t forget that in all the punctuation points along history that I’ve observed in the last number of decades, is that we are too-ing and fro-ing depending on the colour of the government.”

Seidler also addressed the issue of shorter working weeks in the industry and mentioned that his association and UTS had teamed to do this.

“You’ve got to be very, very careful that when someone mentions a shorter working week, what does that mean? Does it mean a compression of what’s existing into four days or five days?”

Some people would benefit from not going to the site on a Saturday and others would benefit from shorter working days and beating the traffic to home in time for some work-life balance, he said. Especially if they travel long distances.

Stephanie Nguyen focused the delicate nature of encouraging change in others.

In short people don’t like to be told that they’re wrong. So how you deliver your message is important.

“One of the things that that has been really helpful to me is observing first, and really understanding the problem, understanding why people are doing it the way that they’re doing it. And to obviously, respectfully, truly understand what is the outcome that we’re trying to achieve.”

You can say, “Hey, I really liked your idea. I just noticed something else that we can develop on top of your great idea. Can we do this as well?”

That’s one way to challenge the status quo at work.

Another is to be aware of the ego. This is something that’s hard to indulge in because you will want to be seen as problem solving and getting things right so you can be promoted up the ranks, Nguyen said.

But beware the downside: “Ego makes you afraid to ask questions, because you don’t want to look stupid. And ego makes you always want to be right.”

It’s important to take a step back and be a learner, she said.

It’s also important to keep a keen eye on your employer. Is their corporate social responsibility genuine?

“When you look at everybody’s website, they’re all about giving back to the community – they’re all about sustainability. They’re all about flexible working arrangements… and being careful not to greenwash.”

But a good employer will “genuinely care about you as a person; they want to develop you. And I think also you should look at the ecosystem that they’re interacting with, what kind of clients that they work with.”

If the employer and client are both profit driven to the exclusion of social and environmental values that attitude will get “filtered down the line” to the detriment of the company’s people.

An employer of choice,” Nguyen said, “is someone who genuinely believes in what they’re doing and they genuinely invest in their people.”

A change worth aiming for.

YouTube video

– With Bevin Liu

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