“People seem to think construction is digging holes; they don’t realise the vast array of careers in the industry”
Karen Brooks

In our second feature with Sir Robert McAlpine’s Karen Brookes, director of people and infrastructure and member of the Board, we discuss employee culture at the organisation, why family values are so important and plans for engaging a new generation of leaders and skilled workers in their careers in construction.

“The range of employees here is vast, from individuals who’ve been with us for 40 years, to young talent joining our apprenticeship programme.” As such Karen has seen a wide variety of skills and experience at Sir Robert McAlpine.

“Our managing director in London started as an apprentice and worked her way up to the role of project director. She then took time out to travel with her husband as part of his job and have three children. After all that, she came back to rejoin us.

“People’s reasons for wanting to be part of our organisation vary. Some want hands-on experience in construction and the opportunity of a lifelong career. Others want to join a business that’s big on the sustainability and environmental agenda. Many want to be part of a team that gives back to the community.

“People seem to think construction is digging holes; they don’t realise the vast array of careers in the industry. And, yes we’re always working with our talent partner, Morson, to identify experts in niche trades – like stonemasons and carpenters. But for a construction business to thrive requires more expertise than you can imagine.”

Sir Robert McAlpine is well known in the industry for the benefits it offers employees for their hard work. Karen explains that these rewards create a career experience that becomes more than ‘just a job’, and creates a family-feel.

Attracting top talent through your brand

Employer branding is really important these days and is something we work closely with Morson on. We’re offering a package which is industry-leading, but also true to our values and not just an empty selling point”.

“Our suite of employee benefits shows our team that we care about what’s important to them. For example, giving everyone an extra day of holiday on their birthday. Volunteering days – with charities or local schools – so they can give back to causes that are important to them. And work experience weeks, where young people from our communities can get to grips with what a construction career involves. The benefits of these are mutual, for both the young person and our team members.

“There’s also the sabbatical bank, which we introduced just before COVID. Previously, each year, you could only carry five days of holiday forward. However, people weren’t able to take holidays abroad – or even in the UK – during the pandemic. So we gave them the chance to put any unused holiday into the sabbatical bank. On top of this, we promise to match anything that is put into the bank. It means every employee has the chance to take paid time out to do absolutely anything they want to do. Whether it’s a short career break, adding it onto the end of parental leave or doing something totally different like writing a book.

Family values

“We also take care of our employees – if they’re struggling, we do everything we can to turn that around. Throughout COVID, some of our employees’ partners were forced out of work because they were shielding, made redundant, or furloughed. We offered grants to help those people make ends meet. Offered a consolidated loan scheme to people who had outstanding debts which would make life more bearable during such a financially difficult time. We treat our staff like we would want our family members to be treated by their employers.”

And that focus on family transcends even further throughout the business.

Two construction workers, one male, one female, looking at a tablet

Parental leave equality

“When a new child enters a family, it’s such a special time. We’ve made our paternity and maternity policy gender-neutral. Every new parent receives 26 weeks of paid leave regardless of gender. They can take it in year one or over a three-year period. It’s their choice as to how they spend time with their family.

“When we introduced this policy, some older team members pointed out that it was something they never benefitted from. Now we’re looking into grandparental leave so that all generations of a family can spend quality time together and get to grips with all the changes that a new child brings.”

Whether it’s a case of appealing to candidates in the market who are seeking a new role or ensuring existing team members feel compelled to remain within the business, Karen explains that Sir Robert McAlpine’s employer brand is one of its most valuable assets.

Tackling churn

“Attrition rates in the industry can be as high as around 20 per cent, but we’re operating much lower than that. I believe it’s down to how we, as an organisation, and how Morson as our talent partner, take care of our core team and any contractors who join us on a project basis. Working together with Morson, we’re always analysing how best to engage with the workforce – what do they want? What would they value? What could we introduce that could make their experience with us even better?

“And it does help achieve long-term employee loyalty, which we can then use to benefit the business further. For example, we’re about to launch SRM Accelerate, which is a tool for succession planning for the very top levels of the organisation. We’re looking at the next director of people, the next 10 MDs of our regional businesses, perhaps even the next CEO.

“Also, this year we’re launching our Future Leaders programme, which is for everyone working at level four or below, who may be at the start of their careers. Anyone can apply to be part of it and they’ll receive management training, working on real-life organisational challenges and projects with a view to them moving up in the organisation across the next five years.

“At any one time, we have between 100 and 150 graduates and apprentices and that pool is diversifying in terms of who comes through the door, whether that be gender, ethnicity or ability. We want to typify the communities in which we’re building our projects, and demonstrate that a career in construction is open to everyone.”

Finding the right fit

Morson and Sir Robert McAlpine work together to encourage people of all backgrounds to apply for roles within the company, using specialist technology. Morson deploys diversity questionnaires to drive inclusion within the recruitment process and utilise gender neutralising technology to scan job adverts for any language with gender bias. And what’s also key is striking a perfect balance between experience and skills, and values and beliefs, to ensure they support people to carve out careers in construction for life.

“When you’re recruiting in this marketplace, it is so important to test people’s skills and capability. If you’re an engineer, for example, we’d expect you to have a certain number of years’ experience. But absolutely, the most crucial thing to us is behavioural fit and cultural values. If there was a couple of years’ difference in trade experience between two people but it was clear the person with fewer years under their belt would fit better in our organisation, there’s no question as to who would get the job.

“We’re currently in talks with Morson about launching a cultural psychometric questionnaire which will soon become part of our selection process. We’re in a strong position in that we work with Morson for our talent resourcing, and they understand our organisation, and what types of personalities would fit best with our own, but I feel you can never do enough work in this area because even just one hiring error a year can be damaging and expensive.


“These days, people change jobs every three or four years; there aren’t many professions or organisations where you have a shot at a 40-year career, but construction can offer that, it’s a real differentiator. And that’s a blueprint we want to pull together to set a new standard in the industry, and is why personality fit is so important. If your values and beliefs are in line with ours, then we have the programmes in place and the employee benefits you’ll need to map out a construction career which sees you develop personally and professionally. You just have to show you’re as committed to us as we are to you.”

The way businesses attract, convert and delight talent needs to be agile, insightful, and unique. Candidates and employees demand more. Organisations need to understand their audience and find innovative ways to make their brand shine in front of the right people. To help, we created Morson Digital Studio.

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