Beyond time, cost and quality – the unforeseen benefit of MMC

Stephen Wightman
When we talk about the benefits of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), we often focus on the time/cost/quality triangle.

Yet the more I work in MMC, the more I see it has wider opportunity than improving delivery – it can be a key component in increasing diversity. With safer and more welcoming environments and innovative practices, MMC has the potential to bring in new and varied talent to our industry.

The challenge with traditional construction

A GMB survey showed that only one in eight construction workers are women and only 5.4% come from BAME backgrounds. Construction News’ LGBT+ survey showed over half of LGBT+ respondents did not feel comfortable being open about their sexuality or gender on construction sites. Why is this?

Having been on a fair few construction sites, I can attest that they can be a challenging place to work. In some cases, I’ve seen it create difficult cultures; in others, an environment that is not inclusive. It is difficult to monitor and police bad behaviour on construction sites where there is high staff turnover, low levels of consistent working, numerous sub-contractors and supply-chains, all of which can lead to a lack of team ethos. The unpredictable nature of construction workers’ earning (day rates, short-term contracts) reduces routine for people who prefer it, for example parents with young children or people caring for an older relative.

Even if we were to eradicate some of these behavioural issues, the fact remains that construction sites are unpredictable environments, with safety challenges making the work less appealing to some demographics. On-site construction work has traditionally been done by males and able bodied individuals due to a number of factors, from the physical nature of tasks to difficult access and uneven ground conditions to the peripatetic nature of operations, with construction workers often in London one week and Scotland the next.

All of this contributes to the diversity statistics I mentioned above. It is a self-perpetuating cycle – the nature of work leads to a lack of diversity which in turn reduces the interest of people from diverse background in applying to roles in construction as they can’t see similar, like-minded people in the industry already. 

The role MMC can play

So how can MMC help us improve this?

With MMC taking place predominantly in factories, it can provide a more stable working environment, with a set location and regular income and employment. From experience, I’ve seen this open the doors for people with family and care commitments to take up a more regular role with reliable income. Flexible working arrangements are also easier, with MMC factories offering more part-time or even shift patterns. With people in a single workplace over longer periods of time, MMC can also help create a community atmosphere with more long-term relationships – and deeper understanding and empathy – established with colleagues and behavioural issues becoming easier to identify and stop.

Furthermore, factory set-ups can allow greater access to workers who are less able-bodied as processes can be managed to accommodate them and the level factory floors permit easier access. The more controlled environment also means less variability and risk; it is easier to isolate vehicles and workers and avoid accidents, essential for those with hearing or visual impairments. Physical barriers to working are lower overall as mechanical handling and other innovations can be introduced to reduce physical impact on individuals.

Also, as factory environments are more predictable places to work – things happen in a sequence and are generally standardised – from experience, this can be an easier environment for people with learning disabilities who find it difficult to process changing environments. MMC approaches enable us to introduce repetitive activities which can be easier to learn and process.          

Moving forwards

Much has been written on construction initiatives to improve diversity (as well as their apparent failure to do so) – the need to change, the business case and the goodwill is there. With a widening skills gap in construction (which will only be heightened by Brexit) the need for more people to enter the industry has never been higher.

By promoting MMC, we can add value to the traditional construction trade-based skillset and demographic towards a high tech, innovative environment where we attract different skillsets and people from all walks of life. People outside our traditional talent pool will see there is a role for them to play in construction and an opportunity to innovate and influence its future. With the introduction of the Construction Playbook and the UK’s Government’s wide-ranging support for MMC, there has never been a more opportune time for the industry to embrace and support MMC to deliver its widest benefits. 

MMC on its own won’t solve our diversity and inclusion issues – and I don’t assume I have all the answers – but by promoting new ways of working we can also help promote diversity. So, when we talk about the opportunity of MMC, let’s also look at its diversification potential; because therein lies its unforeseen benefits.

First published in Construction News on 24th March 2021

Written by