Brexit dominated the conference as speakers tried to reassure members, while admitting there were still so many unknowns nobody could be sure what would happen. A live poll recorded that 74% of the audience had voted to remain in the EU. The packed conference heard from Professor Noble Francis, economics director at the Construction Products Association. The normally bullish Francis blasted other economists for their inaccurate doom-laden predictions of immediate recession and stock market collapses. He said the lesson was that “it’s unrealistic to forecast accurately five years ahead”. Until the Brexit decision is actually enacted – by the government triggering Article 50 – nobody could know what was going to happen. Francis said his own forecasts would now only run until 2018.
Fears that product, business and management standards used across the industry might be sacrificed in the bonfire of EU regulation demanded by Brexiteers were also quashed. Kieran Parkinson, market development manager at the British Standards Institute (BSI), put the record straight, dispelling two main myths. The UK is a leading light in setting many of the European and international standards – the standards are not “imposed” from Europe, he said. And the European standards bodies CEN and CENELEC are not part of the EU but are private bodies. CEN, for example, already includes 33 countries, including five non-EU countries – Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, which are members of the European Free Trade Association, plus Macedonia and Turkey. And 75% of CE standards have nothing to do with EU directives or legislation. Parkinson made clear that this could well continue post-Brexit as BSI is itself not an arm of the UK government but an independent private company established under Royal Charter.
Recruitment expert Trevor Rees told delegates that whatever happened they could still make the most of the UK market, UK workers and UK opportunities. He flagged up the business opportunities open to construction firms and explained how to get the best from a well-run recruitment strategy. He warned against “talking ourselves into a recession”. But, when delegates were asked at the end of the conference if they felt more confident about the future by the end of the day, only 40% said they did. One other fear expressed was that with overseas workers returning home – that is already happening as they are made to feel unwelcome before any scrapping of free-movement rules – there would be increasing skills shortages and a rise in union militancy.
Helen Yeulet, the new FIS skills delivery director, said FIS needed to tackle the sector’s training and skill shortage. Her rallying cry came as 72% of delegates said they were struggling to recruit skilled staff. “We need to step up and take responsibility for training and skills in our sector,” she said. “So the FIS board has decided to spend some of its reserves doing just that. FIS is determined to have the entire industry fully accurately CSCS carded by 2020, to attract 1,500 new entrants to the sector and to increase the CITB grant claimed by member firms from the current 35% to 50%.” The CourseSight portal of approved training providers, which automatically updates CSCS cards once training is completed and automates the claiming of CITB grants has already established FIS as a leader in the field.
Delegates were also told that FIS had agreed a deal with major construction law firm Bond Dickinson to provide members with a free legal helpline. Solicitor Kara Price said members could make four queries a month, including sending documents. They would get an hour of free advice covering payment terms, contracts, disputes and problems with bonds and warranties. Members can view the details here.
Mark Coates of Construct PM informed delegates of another FIS member benefit; 18 months for the price of 12 until the end of October when purchasing the Construct PM app. Construct is a fully customisable site-to-office Information Management System. The Construct App allows onsite access to programme information as well as tasks and issues, with tasks assigned from any mobile device. Members can view the contact details here.