A Game of Patience in Scottish Construction (2023)

It is said that patience is a virtue and Scottish construction businesses have displayed a lot of it in 2023.  Whilst the year started with much promise, many building contractors were held up in protracted preconstruction wrangles, preventing them from doing what they do best; build stuff!

Those wrangles manifested in a multitude of ways but at the heart of it all was one thing; cash, or rather, the lack of it.  High cost inflation over the last few years led project estimates to balloon and budgets set by client bodies have struggled to match.  New projects set to start in 2023 were instead caught up in varying cycles of value engineering and tough negotiation on risk mitigation, using up much time and energy throughout the year.

In one sense, this is a positive step for the industry.  Public sector framework hubs have led to better contractor engagement at the outset of projects.  It is a system, in part, designed to ensure the sustainable delivery of large-scale public investment, where risk and reward are better understood and shared.  However, faced with the unprecedented pressure on cost inflation, that system has been severely tested.

As specialist recruiters operating in the construction sector, what it has meant for us is a tilt in demand towards Design Managers and Preconstruction Managers as many businesses have sought to bolster their team to help with tricky Phase One periods.  Furthermore, we’ve seen increased demand for Design Managers within Tier 2 contractors, some of whom have newly created the role within their structure.

With a limited pool of experienced Design Managers available on the market, most employers we worked with throughout the year have sought to develop their own, with us often recruiting Architects or other design professionals with the desire and core competencies to make the switch.

That theme of developing talent and focusing on recruiting people with the right core competencies proved to be a wider theme in 2023, particularly in the realm of Quantity Surveying and Estimating.  Many of the placements we made throughout the year were at the junior/trainee end of the spectrum as employers across the board recognised that buying in experienced talent was only part of the answer.

With fewer new projects starting, demand for delivery-focused staff, particularly in the west of Scotland, has been lower.  There has been an observable tilt towards the east of Scotland in new projects starting, ranging from the Scottish Borders up to Fife.  This has presented something of a challenge for those based in the West who have otherwise enjoyed working closer to home.  We anticipate this trend will continue in 2024 with a spate of new projects set to start over the year in the east.

On a more encouraging note, projects valued under £20m had an easier time in their preconstruction development, meaning many SMEs were kept reasonably busy.  Most endured a few peaks & troughs within their respective markets throughout the year but the overall picture tended to be positive, even if early forecasts were not quite met.  A select few SMEs had a more consistent run and enjoyed a more hectic time throughout the year.

As the year draws to a close, we have enjoyed a steady demand for our services in the recruitment of both permanent and freelance staff.  Most main contractors anticipate new projects will move to phase 2 delivery in 2024 and are gearing up to look at delivery staff in the form of Project Managers and Site Managers so we do expect a great focus in these disciplines, particularly in the east.  This will require spending bodies to take more decisive action in the coming year compared to 2024.

We are always keen to hear other points of view.  If you’ve experienced something a little different or would like to discuss how we might help your business address resource challenges then our Construction & Building Team is on hand to assist

Posted by Jamie Porter
12th December, 2023
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