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By Annabel Crookes, President, Australian Constructors Association (ACA)

Annabel Crookes, President, Australian Constructors Association (ACA)

A career in Australia’s construction industry offers many great things – including a chance to be a part of delivering our nations’ future infrastructure.

I’ve spent my entire life around our industry – as a child watching my dad go off to work, as a construction lawyer when I first started my career, and now as a Director at Laing O’Rourke and President of the Australian Constructors Association (ACA).

An industry stuck in time

I am passionate about this great industry, and while some change has occurred the reality is that construction productivity is lower today than it was in 1990.

We have gone backwards. The pressure I remember seeing my dad deal with was immense – burnout and fatigue were commonplace – and this continues to be an issue for our people today.

Whilst other industries have evolved to compete on innovation and adopting advancements in technology, we are still building roads largely like the Romans did. Despite an increasing number of studies espousing the benefits of a four-day week, we are still trialling the possibility of a five day week.

As more and more Australians realise the value of a work-life balance, our industry is facing a challenge in attracting a new generation of workers. The next generation is telling us they don’t want to work long, inflexible hours in an ‘old school’ industry that values presenteeism, focuses on cost and is struggling to reduce its impact on the environment.

The clock is ticking, and the stakes have never been higher. Equally, the opportunity has never been more exciting. We can offer people from all walks of life a rewarding career, where they are challenged to solve complex problems and leave a legacy that serves local communities for generations.

To make our offering compelling, we must make changes now to ensure a career in our industry doesn’t come in the way of a social life or watching the kids play sport on the weekend. The construction industry accounts for 26 per cent of all insolvencies in Australia – so we must make changes now to ensure a fair return on a project is celebrated.

Together we can refuse to be a part of the problem any longer and instead be the solution. As President of the association representing the nation’s largest contractors, I know there is so much we could do and that is why I was immensely proud when all of the members of the ACA took a stand at our Future of Construction Summit and pledged to transform the culture of the industry.

Setting ambitious goals for gender equality and workplace flexibility, the nation’s major contractors have committed to 75 per cent of the Association’s membership being certified an Employer of Choice by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) within five years.

As the most male-dominated industry in Australia and with the widest pay gap of any (29 per cent compared to Australia’s overall 22.8 per cent as cited in WGEA’s Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard December 2022 report), this is an ambitious target that will promote gender equality, greater diversity and inclusion.

Workforce analysis of WGEA Employers of Choice revealed that Australian employers awarded WGEA status are closing the gender pay gaps faster and successfully implementing work environments that support more equal sharing of caring responsibilities at home. This proves that a commitment to change is getting results.

At Laing O’Rourke, we were the first tier 1 constructor to receive a WGEA Employer of Choice citation in 2020, and since then I have witnessed firsthand the deliberate and accelerated behavioural changes it has driven across our organisation and at all levels. The rigorous criteria to meet and maintain the citation have supercharged our efforts across all parts of our business.

As a result, we have increased overall female participation from 26 per cent to 35 per cent and increased the number of women in senior leadership roles on projects from 11 per cent to 19 per cent, meaning now, if you work on a Laing O’Rourke project, there is double the chance you are reporting to a female manager.

We have also increased our already industry-leading parental leave policy, introduced processes to ensure pay parity across the business and agreed to pay superannuation on both paid and unpaid parental leave. I have no doubt we would have eventually achieved all of this without the WGEA citation, but it places an urgency on gender equality that is undeniable in its effectiveness.

To further raise the bar industry-wide, the second target area is workplace flexibility. Our members will mandate flexible work plans for employees on every project in a move to address the long hours, high stress and poor work-life balance that characterises the industry.

With major workforce shortages right now, the pledge includes a commitment to highlight the many positive aspects of the industry, in order to attract more workers to join from other sectors.

Construction is a varied and exciting industry that solves complex challenges every day and provides opportunities for people with a range of skills. By aligning these opportunities with a culture of collaboration, innovation, flexibility and inclusiveness, the Australian construction industry can truly become the envy of the world.

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