The construction industry is Australia’s third largest employer and the backbone of the economy, particularly during our economic recovery phase post-Covid. However, work conditions compared to other industries could be better. There’s been a lot of pressure to catch up with project delivery since the pandemic. Add to the mix supply chain shortages and a candidate short market. Also, many construction employees work extended hours each day whilst filling 6-day per week requirements, with some working up to 7 days per week. Is a 5-day construction work week the solution?
The fallout from the above situation has seen mental health challenges, burnout, high stress, injuries, and suicides/deaths.
There are also trickle-down ramifications for the family units of these construction workers, often ending in divorce, and the workers become even more isolated as maintaining friendships falls by the wayside.
The cost to the industry in terms of dollars is astronomical, running into the billions.
It’s an unsustainable, toxic mix. But there’s a whiff of change in the air for a 5-day work week supported by strong research. But we also look at some of the complexity involved with the shorter work week for the industry as a whole.
There’s been a lot of research indicating shorter work weeks, such as a 5-day work week for construction workers, and overtime rates for extended hours within those five days equates to a better work-life balance, job satisfaction and well-being.
An example of a construction company trialling the 5-day work week with an emphasis on health and wellbeing is tier-one Roberts Co with ‘Project 5 – A Weekend for Every Worker’. At Roberts Co, workers earn the same for five days per work week as for working six days. This has seen them gain more tenders, along with branching into the build-to-rent market.
In 2020, Lend Lease struck a deal with the CFMEU that any new project would be a 5-day work week (albeit with concessions).
Likewise, Destination Brisbane Consortium (contracting Multiplex, Fitzgerald, and Delta Group) in developing Queen’s Wharf, the largest construction project in Queensland, also operates on a 5-day work week policy.
However, with every good initiative, there can be risks. And those risks sit predominantly with the smaller construction companies.
The impact on smaller builders
As we’ve seen above, some bigger building companies already offer 5-day work week policies. And it’s becoming attractive for candidates to obtain shorter work weeks for the same or more salary.
This is where the smaller builders become impacted. We’ve seen 5-day programs for Site Managers etc, and they have a hesitancy to go to the smaller builders because a lot recognise they’ll be the only site person representing the company, which means they’ll have to be on-site the entire time the site is open – and a lot of smaller builders will still run on Saturdays.
On the one hand, we’ve got some small builders that recognise their employees have done a good job meeting the construction date they aim for. There’s the flexibility that the team doesn’t have to work on a Saturday if certain criteria are met for the week. But on the other hand, you’ve got other small builders who want to optimise the time beyond running on schedule or ahead of schedule and view Saturdays as an opportunity to get through even more work, expecting higher productivity levels. The team is expected to be there six days per week. The latter of these smaller builders are sitting at a distinct disadvantage.
Workplace culture is changing
For the multiple reasons in this article, workplace culture is changing. One example, over the past two years, we’ve seen more and more situations, such as people becoming single parents, where they may have divorced as they’ve been working years of long hours of 60-70 hours per week. Now they have children to care for and can’t cater for a full or half-day Saturday anymore.
People are becoming more aware that these situations are mitigated better in the bigger teams of mid or upper-tier builders, as they have a big enough project team to rotate / roster the Saturdays or offer an outright 5-day work week. Also, as they have more employees, they can be flexible about who opens and closes the gates to cater for people’s work-life balance consistently.
And that’s why it’s becoming a concern for smaller builders when they are trying to recruit staff. With many of them coming from the bigger companies / mid tiers, they often can’t equal similar pay or better pay / conditions, and often there is only one supervisor on site.
So, what can a smaller builder offer?
One of the big things that smaller builders can offer is flexibility. There’s less hierarchy to contend with, so decisions that need to be made are made quicker and easier, where some staff can go directly to the owner and say they need XYZ, and it happens.
Another benefit of the smaller builder is gaining exposure to the entire construction process beyond your role. So, if it’s a broader skillset and more variety you are after, the smaller builder is worth considering. There is also less chance of becoming pigeonholed into a particular role.
Often, work-life balance comes in the form of smaller and less technical projects and fewer control processes, allowing for higher productivity.
So, as you can see, it’s not as simple as choosing a large builder to work for because of the days on offer or higher salary and/or for a smaller builder because of the above reasons. There are many variables working for each. And some of these variables will align better with certain personalities and career goals than others. Therefore, looking at all the pros and cons of each of the different tiered builders before starting your job search and when choosing your next employer is crucial. It’s good to remember that what may work for one person may not necessarily work for you and vice versa.
Shorter work weeks are becoming more the norm in the construction industry, and rightly so when looking at the research that supports the changes. However, it’s a complex situation for the industry that may inadvertently impact our smaller builders in the process. The argument is that there are pros and cons of being employed by both small and big builders. Overall, the consensus is that the industry is changing and will be faced with some big challenges to overcome along the way that can’t be ignored. One of these is how to better support the survival of our smaller builders in a highly competitive landscape.
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