We need to change the culture around quality and put pride back into the construction sector – CIOB CEO

Posted On: 
9th September 2019

Caroline Gumble, the new CEO of the Chartered Institute of Building, talks to PoliticsHome about her passion for construction, arguing building work is a form of STEM and this fact is not fully understood in the UK. 

Caroline Gumble has joined the CIOB at a time of increased scrutiny on the construction industry following a string of high-profile quality failings.
Credit: 
CIOB

The new Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) Chief Executive, Caroline Gumble, is just three weeks into her role when we meet up in the PoliticsHome offices.

She has joined the organisation at a time of increased scrutiny on the construction industry following a string of high-profile quality failings – something Caroline makes it clear she is keen to address.

It is also a time when political upheaval is affecting the construction industry which in 2018 was responsible for 6 per cent of UK GDP. With on-going Brexit uncertainty, Government support is vital if home building targets and a drive to improve quality are to be anything other than a pipe dream.

QUALITY

In February 2017, 17 schools in Edinburgh were closed due to safety concerns and just five months later, the construction industry and the whole country watched in horror as the Grenfell Tower fire claimed the lives of 72 people.

These events drew sharper focus on the construction sector, and it has become clear changes are needed in how construction quality is managed in the UK.

Leading the response, the CIOB, as the professional body responsible for construction management, established the Construction Quality Commission, to review how the sector manages quality.

Two years on, the Construction Quality Commission is taking its next step in driving quality management up the agenda as it launches its pioneering new quality code.

 “Quality is the essence of everything for us,” states Caroline, as she met with us recently.

Drawing on her background in manufacturing to bring a critical eye to the construction industry, she explained how the manufacturing and engineering sectors are “years ahead” of the construction industry with their productivity because they concentrated on quality.

“For my tenure the biggest and single most important thing is to change the quality culture in the sector, improve public confidence in the sector and put pride back into the sector,” she explained.

“There is universal recognition that the construction sector needs to do better”, she added.

Central to her vision for improving the sector is the brand new CIOB quality code, which will work to highlight the quality issues across the construction process, as well as offer guidance on best practice in construction quality management.

The Code brings together the information sources already available, in the form of practice notes, regulations, codes and standards.

In the last two years, the CIOB and the Commission has already spearheaded work in this area, including working with Dame Judith Hackitt, who led the review into the failings that caused the Grenfell fire. The two reviews have now essentially merged together. On Grenfell, Caroline is clear:

“It shouldn’t have happened.”

Caroline firmly states she has yet to meet anyone who doesn’t agree with the need for better regulations in the construction industry: “This is something which unites the sector,” as well as referencing the CIOB’s support for a New Homes Ombudsman.

As a professional body, the CIOB can look at the competencies of professionals in the sector and decide what they should know and what standards they should work to. Caroline has a clear vision for what went wrong and how it needs to change.

“It is about culture. We must reinforce the need for quality in everything that we do in the sector.”

She points out this goes beyond simply a practical quality issue: “If you have a quality environment and culture you don’t have wellbeing issues, or slave labour.”

She recognises that the industry “has to be more attractive and relevant to people” to encourage more to commit to that quality agenda and fundamentally, decreasing the likelihood of another Grenfell happening.

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION

The first woman director at MakeUK, after forging a career first in HR, and then engineering, there is no doubt Caroline is in the process of taking a leading position in the construction sector.

When asked about being a high-profile woman in industry, Caroline is keen to down-play the relevance of this fact to her job.

“I find it strange people are surprised there is a woman leading CIOB. It shouldn’t even be commented on.”

She considers the biggest barrier to greater diversity fundamentally sits with a perception problem.

“This is not just a female issue – men as well feel this is an industry which is not for them.”

She admitted to being “disenchanted” with the school system while struggling with attitudes towards her as a female pupil when growing up in Suffolk.

“There was a complete lack of ambition for girls,” she said. ”You were not allowed to do woodwork or anything to do with metalwork. You had to do sewing and you had to do cookery. There were no options.”

Reflecting on this, Caroline stated that the CIOB are committed to driving forward diversity and inclusion in the construction industry.

“It is not just a numerical thing” Caroline emphasisesd, “It is about having different groups represented but also about creating an environment where everybody can succeed and that is what you get in a quality environment.”

She laments that people view the construction industry as a career for people who “failed at school”.

“Construction is a form of STEM” she pointed out, “this is not fully understood in the UK”, she continued “Builders are very highly skilled, and our society doesn’t recognise their skill level”.

Caroline suggested construction should be thought of as structural engineering, as it is in most of Europe.

She highlighted the CIOB’s work in schools as key to engaging younger people, pointing to the computer game Minecraft which is being used to as a teaching tool in schools. 

MENTAL HEALTH

CIOB are now undertaking extensive research into the mental health of construction workers. They plan to report their findings early next year.

National Statistics from 2017 suggested that building trade finishers – painters, decorators, plasterers – suffered from a mental health condition at a rate around twice the national average.

Caroline points to long hours, the uncertainty of work and low margins as being among the issues which cause serious stress for construction workers.

THE FUTURE

Looking forward, Caroline is keen for the Government to invest in digital innovations for the construction sector.

“That would do two things”, she explained, ‘One: make it a more sustainable sector. And two: offer more variation in the skills we require”

“We can bring a different image to the sector and bring more diversity and inclusivity to it.”

“What excites me most is the opportunity to really construct society in the future, in very troubling and uncertain times.”

In reference to Brexit, she stated “Construction is an economic success story here in the UK. After Brexit construction still has the tools to continue.”

“We can transform the way society lives and integrates with the built environment. Construction touches on every aspect of people’s lives.”

Concluding, she lingers on what makes for a great CEO: “You’ve got to have a passion and purpose. Everything stems from that. That for me is the one thing you need – and I certainly have got that for CIOB.”