As we enter September and the new school year commences, it is not just parents and grandparents that are relieved the long summer holidays are over and they no longer need to keep youngsters occupied and stimulated. There is also a huge sigh of relief from the army of contractors up and down the land who have had to schedule work at schools and academies to fit in with the holiday period.
Schools have unique scheduling demands when it comes to repair and renovation projects. Their primary concern is that teaching time must not be disrupted by works taking place.
Now, for all contractors, including Hodgson Sayers, it is reassuring to know there will be a spike in activity with schools during the summer, especially as this is a period when other parts of the construction sector traditionally slow down. We all want to be busy and for those of us who have strong experience and expertise of working with local authorities and educational authorities, demand for our services can be exceptionally high during this period.
From laying flooring and commissioning technology to the replacement of roofs and the building of additional facilities, contractors are under immense pressure to get the job done.
Many schools discuss projects with us well in advance to ensure both parties fully understand what preparations need to be in place, so when we arrive on site we can immediately commence work. Many schools and academies are also skilled at procuring services and drawing up contracts and that brings a reassuring clarity and transparency to the project, as we know exactly what is required in terms of specification and budget. It is also part of life that budgets are tight and sometimes funding is only available at the “last minute” which often means the contractor is placed under an additional layer of pressure before they even start on a project.
The problem for contractors is that although we can predict that the summer period will be very hectic, it does not prevent it being a serious challenge to ensure that sufficient skilled tradesmen are available to undertake the work. It is very much a question of supply and demand. This year, just like previous years, some of our managers and operatives have worked up to 80 hours per week to ensure the contracts are completed on time. While this is great testimony to their commitment and dedication, it does place a responsibility on us as a business to ensure that our people are not pushed too hard, too often, during the summer period.
While Hodgson Sayers, for example, has a highly trained, hard core team of contract managers and tradesmen, the exceptional summer spike means we also have to hire temporary skilled labour to meet the demand. It is a fact that there just are not enough skilled roofers or bricklayers in the country and those that do exist are more than likely in good employment. Ironically, the lack of available skilled people during the vacation period, is in some part due to the fact that they are on vacation with their children who are on school holiday!
Other factors are now also coming into play, which we would not previously have expected.
At one time we could, with the odd exception, expect to have relatively dry summers. However, we have experienced more ‘freakish’ weather in the summer months. This six week period alone, we have lost six days. That amounts to a huge amount of time and rivals all but the most exceptional winter periods. If, as experts predict, weather patterns are becoming more extreme, then lost time in the summer will become the norm.
This year also saw severe material shortages within the supply chain. This may have been something to do with Brexit as materials come not just from the UK but across Europe. Another explanation for the shortages could be that as a result of low volumes of work earlier in the year suppliers may have retained lower levels of stock. Either way, such a problem can easily become a crisis when we are working to strict timescales.
While we absolutely understand why the summer period is maximised the way it is, we feel it is time that some fresh thinking is applied. The time must surely be right to move away from the notion that this is the way it has always been done. We would like to see an open discussion involving local authorities, the education sector and the construction industry. Working under such pressure at a time when the availability of skilled labour is at its lowest point in the year is simply not good practice. Through good discussion and sound thinking a better way can be found.