2020 – the year of change

Incoming CEF Managing Director, Mark Spence, examines the seismic changes to our industry and says there's plenty of work to be done...

CEF Managing Director, Mark Spence.

2020 was always going to be a remarkable year for the CEF as we reached 75 years in our current form and also approached a changing of the guard after more than 15 years of leadership under John Armstrong who we thank sincerely for his many years of service to the Federation and the industry generally. When someone’s name becomes synonymous with the cause they serve, it is a testament to the impact they have had. Thus, the daunting challenge that faces me now is to step into what many people, albeit with good intentions, keep reminding me are ‘very big shoes’.

Nevertheless, parking my natural imposter syndrome to one side, I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to draw upon my diverse background in construction, having started out as a chartered accountant, project manager and consultant to both public sector and contractors. This year I start to develop my own contribution to the better understanding of the value of construction within wider society and look forward to working closely with members and others in this process.

Beyond the CEF of course, the global environment has not been so widely impacted by a single phenomenon since the last world war. An invisible but deadly enemy is amongst us and likely will be for some time to come, having already stolen many lives and many more livelihoods. Construction has obviously been severely impacted in terms of the effective shutdown and cautious return to work. However, I firmly believe we should take pride in the conduct of our members, and the industry generally, in the selfless manner in which it prioritised safety over cost at a time of great uncertainty.

Personally, I took great comfort in the collegiate, almost family nature of joint working demonstrated by our members and other contributors in devising safe working procedures and sharing best practices which directly benefited the entire industry. At the outset of this maelstrom, when I set up the member-led working groups on developing health and safety guidance, I could not have hoped for the degree of solidarity and genuine care for staff and public alike that was evident in every meeting.

Taking the best available advice and achieving the support of the HSE meant that, in the absence of any definitive local Executive position on construction, we avoided the forced closures applied to other sectors and gradually and safely returned to work under new and continually monitored working practices. We must now continue to demonstrate the high levels of compliance and responsibility that have been evident to date in order to retain the trust that we have earned and thereby protect economic activity and jobs to the greatest extent possible. The year to date has damaged the global economy and many family businesses will have been severely wounded, both financially and personally, so we now must turn our attention to the recovery to follow.


The absence of face-to-face meetings and cancellation of networking highlights such as the Construction Excellence Awards has left many of us more adept at online meetings though craving regular human interaction. We as an industry have had to dig deep this year to introduce robust remote working solutions, new methods of communications, flexibility for working parents and those with caring responsibilities and a devolved level of trust in staff that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. We will never work the same way again, but the experience has undoubtably propelled us forward along the modernisation curve of modern business practice.

From a CEF perspective, the challenge has been to retain and build our engagement with members and thankfully the response to date has been remarkable. Mutual support via our numerous new social media channels as well as attendance at online webinars and discussions with patrons and invited experts has allowed members to engage with us and one another in more accessible and valuable ways. The future will certainly retain these options even when we resume actual meetings in person.

CEF meeting with Dept of Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon.


As we started to engage with every level of authority and government throughout the crisis mainly virtually, sometimes in person, it highlighted the necessity for conducting the business of government more efficiently and utilising readily available technology. Our challenge now is to seize upon the gains made and ensure the public sector does not revert to the old ways.

On a positive note, key strands of work the CEF has been leading over recent years seem to be bearing fruit, reflected in the findings of the NI Audit Office Report on Capital Projects, the recommendations of the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Infrastructure and the recent Public Accounts Committee Report on procurement of major projects. Key concerns raised by CEF over the years including dysfunctional and inconsistent procurement procedures, an inefficient planning system, a lack of accountability and a punitive approach to contractors are all now mainstream topics for discussion and improvement with all local parties as we head towards election year 2022.

For our industry to recover in the longer term, we also must grapple with the issue of looming skills shortages, mismatched training and apprenticeship offerings and obvious gaps in diversity of our workforces.

Much of the solution lies in changing hearts and minds amongst educators, parents and young people themselves by better demonstrating the range of career opportunities that, if explained in a relevant and age-appropriate manner would allow the industry to compete equally with the more glamorous fintech and professional apprenticeship routes now on offer to school leavers.

Whilst 2020 will certainly be remembered for the impact of Covid-19, it is incumbent on this generation to lay firm foundations for the enthusiastic, educated and innovative next generation in construction. As CEF marks its 75th year, it is perhaps reassuring to be reminded of the many crises, economic rollercoasters and prolonged periods of political instability that have underscored our industry over the decades. Our industry continues to show its remarkable resilience and adaptability and having achieved much this year in the face of adversity, we have much yet to do.