Addressing the long-term health of the industry

15 May 2019
During Mental Health Awareness Week BMF CEO John Newcomb talks about the importance of addressing mental health issues, as well as tackling skills shortages in the construction industry.

John NewcombOn the face of it, the building material supply sector is doing well. The country needs to build many thousands of new homes each year while a steady flow of homeowners want to renovate, improve and extend. Our BMBI report continues to track increasing sales values through UK builders merchants each quarter. Dig deeper, however, and there are issues facing our industry that we need to address now to ensure its long-term health.

Indeed health, or more specifically mental health, is one of the bigger issues facing our industry today. Stress, depression or anxiety accounts for a fifth of all work-related illness in construction. A generation ago, stress didn’t register as a major problem. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t present, just that people were not prepared to talk about it. Now they are opening up, but more needs to be done.   

In a recent study more than half of those in the construction trade (55%) are said to have experienced mental health issues at some point, while another industry study found one in four have considered taking their own life. Shockingly suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 45, affecting people from every walk of life.

This is why we have given priority to discussions on mental health at the BMF All-Industry Conference which takes place next month. A main-stage presentation from two leading campaigners in this area, Neil Laybourn and Jonny Benjamin MBE, is followed by a Mental Health Forum where they will be joined by Brian Dow, MD of Mental Health UK and Deputy Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness.  The Conference will also be supporting Mental Health UK as one of two charities to benefit from the proceeds of our silent auction and other fundraising, the other being Variety, the Children’s Charity our charity of the year.

Addressing skillls shortages

Another major issue facing the building materials supply industry relates to skills shortages. Initiatives to encourage young people into the industry are, of course, important but the impending loss of European workers post Brexit coupled with the time bomb created by an ageing workforce of qualified HGV drivers, and it is clear that we must create a wider range of solutions to an increasingly urgent problem.

Companies like Timpson, DHL, Halfords and Ricoh have been working with H M Prison and Probation service for years, solving their own skills shortages and transforming the lives of ex-offenders by providing employment, further training and a second chance.

The BMF has visited HMP Olney, just one of many Category C resettlement and training prisons that provide a mix of industry, vocational and classroom training, underpinned by English and Maths, to help prisoners gain skills, experience and nationally recognised qualifications during their sentences. Their aim is to reduce the re-offending rate and create safer communities.

Having a job on release is a key area to reduce reoffending. Both Halfords and Ricoh are embedded businesses with their own workshops at HMP Olney, while the staff mess works closely with Pret a Manger, who provide training. HMP Olney also has a forklift training area, concrete production workshop and site carpentry and dry lining workshops. Over 50 men have been released into work from these areas in the last two years. 

After seeing their operation in action, we believe it presents another opportunity for builders’ merchants to broaden the pool of potential recruits. We will be looking to trial the process with two or three merchants in our West Midlands region during the next six months. Watch out for our report back on progress.

This article first appeared in the May edition of Builders Merchants News (BMN)