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Engineering and Construction: what effects has COVID-19 really had?

Construction worker wearing safety uniform in industrial setting

Each industry has dealt with the pandemic in its own way, with both employers and employees adapting to the crisis as best they can. Engineering and construction is no exception, having experienced challenges including the pandemic’s effects on international markets, supply chain bottlenecks and commercial activity. While the longer-term effects of COVID-19 can’t yet be known, it is apparent there has been an impact on the job market, changes to the way work is conducted and a shift in the attitude of both engineering employers and employees.

Over a four-week period in September and October 2020, Bayside Personnel conducted a Market Impact Survey to better understand the impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on engineering employers and jobs. We look at these results in comparison to other industry resources, to gain a better understanding of the current market, attitudes and how the industry has adapted in the face of this challenge.

 

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Changes to staffing levels

Given the prolonged reduction in capacity and high levels of uncertainty, it was assumed this would translate into potential staff reductions and related measures to at least some extent. Bayside Personnel’s survey supports this, with half of all employers surveyed reporting that they decreased their workforce as a result of the pandemic. While 40 percent said they decreased their workforce only slightly, 13 percent reported a significant decrease.

In addition, half of those companies that reported no change to their permanent staffing levels reduced their casual workforce. These numbers are echoed in a SEEK employment snapshot, which reported that 30 percent of casuals and 21 percent of contractors have either lost their job or have been stood down across all industries.

Interestingly, Bayside Personnel found that those companies which didn’t make changes to staffing levels (35 percent), or else slightly increased their workforce numbers (13 percent) were working on government funded infrastructure projects or delivering essential or niche services.

 

Cost reduction measures

If ever there was a time when cost reduction methods were expected to come into play, it has been during this pandemic. In fact, every respondent of the Bayside Personnel survey listed at least one cost reduction method in the context of staffing levels. While 43 percent cited downsizing teams as their primary cost reduction method, 33 percent resorted to a recruitment freeze.

According to an Engineers Australia COVID-19 Member Impact Survey, 28 percent of respondents had experienced a reduction in their hours or income, and 13% had already lost their job. Bayside Personnel found that 40 percent of those employers who reduced hours decreased salaries and enforced mandatory leave as cost reduction strategies were in the area of civil infrastructure.

 

Employee perceptions of organisational measures

Amidst all these changes to the way work was being conducted, it is important to note employers’ attitudes to how they feel their organisation dealt with and adapted to the challenges posed by COVID-19. While indeed many of these changes were likely deemed necessary for these organisations to stay viable during this time, it is important that employees do not feel alienated by their employer, or else employers run the risk of damaged reputation and difficulty retaining key talent.

Fortunately, Bayside Personnel found that two-thirds of survey respondents were satisfied with the way their company had responded to the crisis, with 37 percent believing their employer had dealt with the situation extremely well. Less surprisingly, over half of those respondents who gave negative feedback had lost their jobs during this time.

As well as many companies moving the majority of their workforce to remote work, there were several other factors that were important to employees when it came to their attitude about how their employer had responded, including communicating a clear plan of action, implementing safety protocols and caring about employee wellbeing. According to a survey conducted in March, the percentage of full-time workers who strongly agreed that their organisation cared about their overall wellbeing actually increased from 45% to 49%.

 

Short term measures employees want to stay

Often it is immediately assumed that changes to the industry “normal” might see a negative response from the workforce, however we found that companies’ responses to the pandemic may have inadvertently rectified some long-term and common complaints of employees.

Across the board, not only within the engineering and construction industry, it seems that greater flexibility in work locations has been an overwhelmingly popular change. Many employees are wanting a ‘hybrid’ style of work that sees them come into the office two to three days out of a five day working week. Reasons workers may wish to return to the office in a semi-permanent fashion include informal social interactions, easier collaboration and a better office set-up with regards to technology access and less distraction.

Bayside Personnel found that other initiatives implemented as a result of the pandemic that employers would like to see continued include improved cleaning, improved technology (particularly that relating to communication), better communication from management and more emphasis on social support.

 

A positive outlook

Despite the turbulent year and high levels of uncertainty, the sector at large appears to have a relatively positive outlook on what the future holds. Bayside Personnel found that 38 percent of employers were confident and the same percentage believe business will remain consistent throughout this time.

Furthermore, in a positive sign for Australia’s job market at large, data from SEEK has found that candidates are beginning to feel more optimistic about their future job prospects, which has only increased with the lessening spread of the virus. This optimism seems founded, given that SEEK has seen strong national job ad growth in September, with job ads up 9.2 percent month on month. In fact, job advertisements have returned to 80 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels in a relatively short period of time.

To read Bayside Personnel’s full Market Impact Survey, click here.

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