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Author: Ross Sturley – CIMCIG Committee Member

At the Chartered Institute of Marketing's Construction Industry Group (CIMCIG) Chairman's Debate last month, the subject of how construction can improve its image came up - again. Despite the good work that our industry does – delivering the Olympic facilities on time, Heathrow’s new terminals and the many high profile developments British firms are involved with on a global scale - the general public’s perception is still coloured by the ‘cowboy builder’ stereotype.

Despite the relative success of the Considerate Contractor scheme, a national initiative set up by the construction industry in 1994 to improve its image, local papers are still full of ‘builders made our lives a misery’ stories, where mud on roads, noise from construction, or some other side effect of building works has affected a local community.Newsletter_CIMCIG_Apr-14

Underlying many of the negative perceptions, there seems to be a feeling that construction is not rocket science. That building projects are a relatively simple task which many people could do better if they only applied themselves. This, of course, is an attitude many marketers will be familiar with. We have probably all encountered a finance director or similar who feels that the ‘colouring in’ department could do with listening to some of their innate creativity.

We also have an issue so difficult that not even government can solve: that the Great British Public simply does not believe the argument in favour of new high speed railways, or vast quantities of new housing - not in their backyard at any rate.

Until the public understands and appreciates the value of the end product – that HS2 will help spread economic growth north; that building new houses on fields is a good thing for jobs, the economy, and for the generations to come so they have somewhere to live; and that airports make money for the UK that would otherwise go somewhere else, we will continue to find the negative stories outbalancing the positive.

It seems the only profession that gets the word 'cowboy' attached to it is builders. Ever heard of a cowboy baker? Thought not. This means construction is not a destination of choice for school leavers; "I really want to be a quantity surveyor" is not something you hear at secondary school mentor sessions.

This is partly because a small minority of builders are cowboys. BBC programme Rogue Traders is full of them – people who can’t be bothered to do an honest job well and who prefer to rip people off with shoddy work, or by conning them into paying for work they don’t need.

Conning people isn’t confined to building, of course, there are door-to-door scams, telephone scams, and more. Our major banks mis-sold insurance for years and are now paying the price. Perhaps construction is just a little more ‘in your face’ than other sectors?

The only solution here, short of some sort of licencing scheme akin to the Architects Registration Board (ARB), which I think no one would want, is continued work on “considerate contractor” style activity, allied with communications targeted at the general public to explain how complex and valuable construction and its end product is, as well as how to spot those cowboys who do exist and flag them up to trading standards.

The latter suggestion falls foul of a question often asked by those researched for this article – who will pay for that? Perhaps it’s time for a levy – maybe a central body such as the Construction Industry Council (CIC) could spend a fund generated by a ‘tax’ on all construction companies on improving the industry’s image?

There is certainly work to be done - work that could make our job easier and more rewarding, restock our industry with new, young talent, and could mean that saying “I’m in construction” at a party would be greeted with respect and admiration, rather than a grimace.

Ross Sturley is principal at Chart Lane, a strategic communications company specialising in construction, property and regeneration, and a committee member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing Construction Industry Group.

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