26th October 2018

Question time: a Novus interview of Rebecca Thompson

Winner of our Novus 10 anniversary competition, Jamie Young, won the opportunity to interview CIOB Past President, Rebecca Thompson FCIOB. Jamie is senior design manager for Wates and the Chair of Cambridge Novus. 

(An excerpt of this interview was published in the November/December 2018 edition of Construction Manager Magazine)

Jamie: How and why did you get into the construction industry?

Rebecca: It was slightly accidental really as when I was at school doing work experience, girls were given reception jobs and boys were given mechanical and surveying jobs. Fortunately, I ended up at a building surveying practice. One day I was bored on reception and having seen what I had been doing at school I was invited to join them in their drawing office. I enjoyed it so much so I went back every school holiday through my A levels and decided to study building surveying at University. Shepherd Construction had seen this girl who wanted to get into construction so offered me the role as an Apprentice Surveyor, supporting me through college as opposed to university. I am really pleased as things happen for a reason and I have loved being in construction ever since.

By falling into construction, was it ever something you saw yourself doing going through school?

No one in my family was in construction so it wasn’t a known career path for me and we weren’t really told about construction opportunities in school. I was a bit of a leader in Lego and good at sandcastles but I don’t think I had any particular skills that were leading me in that aspect other than that.

The industry has changed a lot over the years but what do you think are the main things that have changed from when you started in the industry to now?

Toilets and general site facilities. When I was first on site there were no facilities for women and I was the only woman on the building site for a number of years. I am really pleased to see that facilities have improved and by changing that you also encourage a more diverse audience into a building site because if there are no facilities and your place of work isn’t pleasant then it is not going to entice people to want to come in and stay. I think that is the biggest change.

Do you think there is anything that has got worse since you joined?

The pressure in commercial construction and the pressure on people to deliver too quickly, therefore effecting quality. That is a bit of a generalisation as there are some really great organisations out there who are able to see the problems and are tackling them but generally there is a problem with quality in construction and in particular house building.

At what point did you realise you could become the President of the CIOB?

In all honesty it never crossed my mind and it is still quite incredible to think that I was chosen out of 47000 members. I had been active in the regions and at a local level but never ever considered the call that you get when you get invited to become President. It is a huge privilege. To this day I can still remember where I was standing when I got the call and it stopped me in my tracks. It was quite overwhelming.

As president, what was your day to day like? What are the sort of things you were looking at tackling?

As you have a lead up of over three years to being President through being Vice President and Senior Vice President you are involved with the strategy thinking and corporate planning. It’s a great training process. You have a vested interest in the organisational running and changes and making sure the organisation is financially viable. During my year I had three objectives alongside the Corporate Plan: to get Heritage more on the map; to really celebrate apprenticeships and the routes into membership; and also diversity and inclusion. We have a massive skills gap so unless we are diverse and inclusive we are not going to tap into the resource we need.

How would you judge yourself against those three? How do you feel these objectives went?

It was the start of a journey; they didn’t begin and end in my Presidency. I still talk about these issues and I still include them in any presentations I do outside the CIOB and shout the praises of what the CIOB are doing in all senses of campaigns including young people, apprenticeships, heritage and diversity. It will never end until we have overall success.

Was there a defining moment that you always remember during your Presidency?

Hearing the young scholars with the Worshipful Company of Constructors talking about 3D printing on the moon made me sit back and think my goodness that could really happen. We are moving on at a pace with innovation. Giving a talk on heritage to young people from Winston Churchill’s office was quite incredible and overwhelming and a moment I won’t forget. Presenting to children who had entered a CIOB competition and who gave a presentation at Westminster was really brilliant because the MPs were so engaged with what we were doing as well. That’s another thing the CIOB do so well - making an impact in policy and government. China was another amazing trip, I did that twice. I love China and what it is doing and the changes it is going through with heritage, inclusion and cultural changes and wanting to work with us in the West in construction. It was just a fascinating year.

Margaret Conway winning the CMYA awards last year was a defining moment for women in construction and diversity. How do you see us on that journey? Do you think we are making inroads now?

It was such a fantastic moment and actually quite emotional that we had a really worthy female winner. There is a step change now as there are more female applicants/Personally I feel we still need more diverse applicants. We are making inroads but not fast enough. We are not selling to women and young people that are making decisions about their career path. It’s not an easy sell as when you google images for construction manager, quantity surveyor or builder it often comes up with white men, hard hats, high vis and building sites and it doesn’t show the innovation and technology behind the scenes, people working flexibly and in offices or people being intelligent in finance. We produced a diagram that showed that every career options leads to construction. Whatever you are good at in school it is tangible in the construction industry and we need to use that more. We need to get into schools and colleges and show people the options that are available.

How do you think we start to change people’s perception of the industry?

We lead by example, we celebrate success and we use the next generation, like Novus, who just think that racism and sexism is nonsense. I speak to young people and they say ‘well why would people act like that?’ We have got to encourage young people to show what is normal for their generation which is much more inclusive than my generation was.

I still don’t think we praise the industry enough and in the news you never see good things. Do you think we need to press the positive side of construction and how do we do that?

We need to lead by example and celebrate success and CMYA is a good way to do that. The work CIOB do with Westminster with the receptions are really worth going to. Getting the message out there in talks, conferences, meetings and social media is key. I love what I do and every day I come to work is a different day; I really love working in this industry. If you love your job then you are halfway to success anyway.

I think it is an easy industry to sell as we provide a tangible benefit. That’s why CMYA is amazing as getting recommendations from clients is quite incredible and makes it all worthwhile. To see what others have done is inspirational, which is a theme for Novus this year. What does Novus mean to you?

Every Novus group I have met has had energy, innovation and foresight. You are our barometer and we need to look to you as you are our future. You are coming in starting your careers and influencing and shaping the industry. We need to guide and mentor you as young people but we also need to learn from you. We need to celebrate success that is happening now in inclusion and keep it normal that there are young women, LGBT and people of different origins working in the industry. Diversity is everything not just about women so we need to make it diverse in every sense.

I think the terms ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ and ‘in my day’ should be banned as they don’t help us move forward. In health and safety, ‘that’s the way I’ve always done it’ is a critical cultural issue that the industry has. I would like to think that being part of Novus or even just the up and coming next generation of construction industry workers can really improve and challenge the way things are done.

How do you see Novus’ role developing in the next 10 years?

My advice would be that you do need to go into schools more and influence at a younger age. We have Minecraft  and MyKindaFuture which we can always do more with but it’s also about influencing teachers and parents too. Approaching this category yourself, peer to peer, there shouldn’t be barriers, people need to be brought up thinking they can do anything. It could be helped by banning pink Lego as this is a shocking thing they did for making it gender bias.

As a Novus group you could set your own KPIs and ask yourselves how diverse you are as a group. Are you targeting each area of diversity within your group and do you have representatives from every person that reflects every client you could serve. You could look at what more could be done at Members’ Forum.  If we are going to target young people could we think of name of a group to get them in at young age (mini builders perhaps) so can start getting them interested. Perhaps an app/ video game could be invented and used to get them in and as they are making decisions we can show them that whether they are interested in science, art or physical education, every path leads to a career in the industry.

Minecraft was a great initiative but we could develop that further. There are games out there which could help to inspire but as a Novus imitative this could be an interesting one and fun too. If there is any message you could send to the next generation of construction industry hopefuls, what would it be?

Every day is different and it’s a fantastic industry to work in. There is so much opportunity in however far you want to go in the industry but also working internationally too.

What does the future hold for the CIOB and its impact on our industry? Where do you want to see industry in next 10 years?

I see the CIOB as a conduit for change. In some ways the industry moves really quickly but in another sense we are looking after buildings that are hundreds of years old and we do need those traditional craft skills. I think the diversity within the skills within the industry is something we need to keep and cherish as that makes it a fantastic industry to work in. We need to celebrate successes as we are not only looking at diversity, heritage and apprenticeships but we are challenging the quality in construction through the Quality Commission, celebrating success in CMYA and tackling things like modern slavery. We need to use the skills in membership to lead that change and we need to challenge either bad behaviour or poor quality as a matter of course.

How important is it, to the CIOB and to the industry, that we get the next generation involved? What are the repercussions if we don’t?

It is crucial. If we don’t get the next generation of professionals lined up then we will either lose a lot of our heritage or we will have other states and nations who will come in and have to build for us. We all need infrastructure to live in, to work, to go to school and hospitals so they need to be built and developed. If we can’t do that in the UK then other countries will. It is really important that we continue to be leaders in UK; people see us as having good health and safety, knowledgeable and good qualifications that people can aspire to, like what is offered through the CIOB. We need to ensure that quality stays and is justified.

I think that’s the key, if we are not developing the right talent in the UK and, from a Novus point of view, we need to continue to inspire the next generation and speak up.

You do have a voice, you do have that knowledge and you do have that influence, so have the confidence to definitely challenge. Don’t be intimidated by age or experience, use the knowledge that you are getting every day and challenge that and make it better. 

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