Adrian Attwood, Executive Director at DBR (London) Limited discusses his learnings from 2020 and what the new year holds for the construction industry.

It’s been a tough year for the construction industry and 2021 is likely to present its own set of challenges. There will, no doubt, be tax increases to mitigate the large amounts of debt incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, including national insurance, along with the implementation of IR35 changes affecting the status of self-employed workers. This will inevitably impact business and we need to be prepared.

We can learn a lot from our 2020 experiences to improve the construction sector, and to make it work more efficiently. This year has seen greater collaboration, and dissemination, of knowledge and information via various webinars, forums and experience sharing, both good and bad.

Further, as the construction industry continued to function throughout the year, with the exception of a short pause during the first lockdown, momentum and delivery on projects was maintained. This means focus in the new year can be placed on greater tech adoption, strengthening internal teams through apprenticeships, and taking advantage of renewed investment into conservation work as a result of the re-opening of tourist sites.

Tried and tested technology

Despite all the setbacks that the pandemic has brought to business, it has made our industry realise that work can progress remotely, with minimal disruption. The pandemic has forced many people to work from home at one point or another, nudging companies to think outside the box and review working processes.

While Zoom and Microsoft Teams became popular for those working from home, they can also be used to instantly connect managers and workers on different construction sites. And, whereas prior to the pandemic people would have to commute long distances to meet one another, virtual communication has proven to be just as, if not more, efficient. It’s also kinder to the environment as there’s lower vehicle pollution and less paper being used during meetings.

Many companies have also ditched their energy-guzzling office servers and are now cloud based. This is actually a more effective way to store and share information, with clunky servers being expensive and often unreliable. It also means employees can access information wherever they are. I predict the appetite for cloud-based technologies, such as Zutec Asset digital tracking, used to monitor construction progress and facilitate collaboration, will increase due to their effectiveness during the height of the pandemic.

Apprentice appreciation

2020 was a difficult year for apprenticeships, and a number of businesses said they found the government’s flagship scheme confusing. Many found themselves unable to transfer unused levy funds to smaller firms, and those who did receive the funds were not permitted to use them to cover the administrative costs of hiring apprentices. This left a great deal of young people without the opportunity to start working, and companies without fresh talent to add to their teams.

However, increased focus is being placed on apprenticeships, with CITB set to expand apprenticeship support to all levy-registered construction employers throughout 2021. Support for employers will include help accessing grants, choosing the right apprenticeship standard and training provider, guidance through the Government’s online apprenticeships system, and building partnerships with colleges and training providers.[1]

Further, the national minimum wage for apprentices will increase next April from £4.15 to £4.30 per hour, in line with a recommendation from the Low Pay Commission.[2] At DBR, however, we observe the London Living Wage as a minimum standard.

The theme of the 14thannual National Apprenticeship Week (which is set to take place in February 2021) has been announced as “Build the Future”, and there will be a revitalised focus on encouraging people to consider how apprenticeships help individuals to build the skills and knowledge required for a rewarding career in construction.

This is necessary to provide much needed hope and inspiration for young people across the UK. It’s especially important for the sector, as Brexit comes into full effect at the end of this year and will likely affect the number of EU nationals working in UK construction.

Museums and monuments

Lastly, once museums and other tourist attractions reopen to the public, there will be more money to fund conservation work. The government could further encourage this by levelling the VAT playing field to encompass renovation and restoration work in line with current exemptions on new build.

One positive aspect of the two lockdowns in 2020 was that we had more space to carry out our work due to museums and heritage sites being closed to the public. Once these sites open up again, we’ll have to find ways to work around visitors as we did in the past, however we can still take what we’ve learnt during the pandemic to make work more efficient.

Additionally, museums and other cultural landmarks used the lockdown periods to innovate, create new business models and prepare for the public’s return. There is also the prospect of museum architecture having to change as a result of the pandemic, which would present new renovation plans for construction companies. In all, there is a future for museums and other cultural spaces, however they may need to operate a little differently in 2021, in line with the rest of UK plc.

What the future holds

While 2020 has been filled with ups and downs, there’s hope for the construction industry to not only recover but thrive in the new year. With a vaccine being rolled out across the UK, people are starting to feel more confident about the future and companies are preparing for a return to normality.

The use of new, and existing, technologies have certainly made things easier during this difficult year and will continue to do so in 2021. A re-focus on apprenticeships is also set for the new year, and the reopening of museums and tourist attractions will help boost the economy, providing more work for the construction industry.

However it’s crucial that as the world gets back on its feet, we don’t forget the lessons we’ve learnt this year. Using the tools and techniques developed in 2020 will ensure the industry continues to work more efficiently and more innovatively, and remains successful and secure in 2021 and beyond.

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[1] https://www.citb.co.uk/about-citb/news-events-and-blogs/uk/2020/12/citb-to-expand-apprenticeship-support-to-all-levy-registered-construction-employers/

[2] https://feweek.co.uk/2020/11/25/apprentice-minimum-wage-to-rise-again-in-april-2021/

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