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News & opinion

10 DEC 2019

Way to go: attracting the next generation of construction employees

As a teenager, Edinburgh-born Mark Fergus had no idea what career he wanted to follow. However, an interest in law and economics and “the tactical side of construction”, as he says, led him towards a degree in quantity surveying. After graduating in 1993, a recession in the Scottish construction industry limited his prospects, so he looked for work abroad. Since then, his expertise has taken him to Thailand, Egypt, Dubai, the UK and now the US.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in the US construction market?

Without a doubt, the lack of funding for large projects and the widening skills gap. Thousands of workers, whether professional or skilled labour, left the construction industry after the crash of 2008, and this shortfall has never been fully replaced. This has been exacerbated by construction having a bit of an image problem in the US – it’s getting harder to attract the up-and-coming generation to our complex and sometimes strenuous world of building sites, when they could be working flexibly in tech or media offices. The industry needs more positive engagement with the younger generation. RICS is doing its bit to help grow the number of accredited university courses – a new course was recently launched at New York’s Columbia University, for example.

A lot has been promised by the current administration to boost spending on infrastructure. Is it enough, or should the US be much more ambitious in building vast projects?

There’s no question a lot of infrastructure is in a pretty poor state. Many of the roads and railways built in the mid-20th century are now approaching the end of their design life. But, because of the US government’s increasing balance of trade debt, I can’t see the vast amounts of funds needed for infrastructure coming from the public sector, so alternative funding methods will need to fill the gap. P3 (public-private partnerships) in particular are increasingly being used to build roads, tunnels and schools. We are also providing P3 advisory services on a large civic project here in LA. Nevertheless, it’s a controversial approach, as it can be seen as “selling off” federal or state-owned assets, and it can sometimes be the more expensive option to deliver construction works.

According to Fergus, the US construction market is still being affected by the 2008 crash - leaving a shortage of qualified workers

What's exciting you about the industry in California?

There is a move for commercial and retail properties to get to net-
zero by 2030, so this is bringing a wave of sustainable innovation into the sector. It's also great to see a lot of mixed-use regeneration projects taking place across once-neglected areas of LA including downtown, which is attracting people to move back there.

You've worked in four continents over the past three decades – how is quantity surveying perceived around the world?

One of the biggest differences is how the role of a quantity surveyor is generally well recognised in Asia and the Middle East, but still not in the US. Here, there is still, to some degree, a lack of understanding around the role of the quantity surveyor or commercial manager as a key member of the construction team. Sometimes I feel a lot of my time is spent trying to describe what I actually do. Having said that, I'm noticing more and more big tech and pharmaceutical companies going out of their way to request RICS-qualified estimators or managers for their developments. The reputation of the qualification instils a confidence that their schemes will be built to high, exacting standards, which they no doubt look for in their own products or services.