Australia’s construction industry is facing a daunting challenge – the industry is short of 229,000 workers to build the new homes, hospitals and schools needed, the transport infrastructure to keep Australia moving, the defence infrastructure to keep our country safe and the energy infrastructure required to reach net-zero emissions commitments. Delivering the pipeline of work ahead of the construction industry seems like an impossible task.

The dramatic shift from a surplus of workers to a shortage is a wake-up call. It has highlighted deeper issues that can’t be solved with simply supply and demand economics. It has exposed a cultural flaw that is perpetuating long work hours, high stress levels and alarming rates of mental illness and suicide. It is a realisation that resonates with me deeply, having witnessed firsthand the toll it takes on workers across construction sites.

The good news is that just about everybody recognises the need for change. We are at a pivotal moment in the industry’s evolution and for the first time ‘harden up’ no longer holds sway.

For the contractors’ part, members of the Australian Constructors Association representing the nation’s major contractors, made a ground-breaking pledge in 2023 to transform the culture of the industry within a five-year time frame. As we mark the one-year milestone of this pledge, I am encouraged by the progress we have made.

The first significant step towards this transformation is the commitment made by contractors to achieve the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Employer of Choice citation by 2028. This isn’t just about addressing gender disparities in pay; it’s about creating an inclusive environment where opportunities are available to all, irrespective of gender. Laing O’Rourke, John Holland and Clough have already achieved this milestone, setting a powerful precedent for the industry. As one of the most male-dominated industries in Australia, imagine the impact on the industry as more major contractors attain the citation.

Workers everywhere, both men and women, are demanding more than just work – they want a life. We hear this daily on sites but a recent study by the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce of New South Wales trainees confirmed that long working hours are deterring the next generation of workers from the industry. Flexible work practices with reasonable hours/days worked is not an unreasonable ask. Questioning the necessity of the ten-hour workdays and six-day workweeks that characterise the industry, contractors have implemented workplace flexibility policies to ensure genuine access to flexible arrangements for every employee. By offering a better work-life balance including more flexible hours, we are confident we can improve worker wellbeing and, in doing so, the industry will be in a better position to attract workers, notably women.

Speaking of diversity, attracting more women to the industry is another important part of improving the construction industry’s culture. The Australian Constructors Association is developing an attraction campaign targeting women. While the campaign is still in the early stages of development, the aim is to create something unique and to leverage our position in delivering some of the nation’s most awe-inspiring projects by providing women with firsthand site experiences.

In tandem with industry efforts, governments are taking action to reshape industry culture through procurement practices. Collaborating with the NSW and Victorian governments through the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce, we are establishing a national culture standard for diversity, work-life balance and worker wellbeing. Pilot projects implementing this standard show promising results, demonstrating that improved worker conditions can be achieved without significant financial sacrifice.

Meaningful change requires a collective effort to build a construction sector that serves the best interests of Australia. As someone who has grown up on construction sites, I view the opportunity for change through a personal lens, understanding both the broader implications for the future sustainability of the industry and the individual impacts on workers.

While the road ahead may still be challenging, the pledge by the nation’s major contractors and the active efforts of government are paving the way for a brighter future for Australia’s construction industry. The clouds are indeed clearing.

Opinion piece by Jon Davies, CEO, Australian Constructors Association – 24 June 2024

Originally posted via InsideConstruction.